The Cast of Top of the Pyramid Talks Back

Friday, July 29, 2016

by Simon Hodgson

What happens when you combine a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a new theatrical space, and a crew of talented young actors? You get Top of the Pyramid, a world premiere by playwright Nikkole Salter now playing at The Strand. After Tuesday’s opening night success, the cast followed Wednesday evening’s performance with a fascinating postshow talkback. Not only did the entire audience stay to ask questions, but the process really brought out the structural strengths of this collaborative project.

The cast of A.C.T.'s production of Top of the Pyramid. Photo by Jay Yamada.

The storyline in Top of the Pyramid follows three African American girls who join a new, mostly white high school and enroll in the cheerleading squad. While the play follows the three friends as they try (with varying levels of humor and humility) to adapt to a different school culture, the subplot seethes with suppressed resentment, hurtful misinformation, and outright discrimination. As the cheerleading squad works toward its grand performance, the tension rises in the group until tempers fray, fists fly, and all the students are forced to recognize their true selves.

What the postshow discussion really illustrated was how the narrative of the play mirrored the collaborative nature of this project. Just as the story focused on the creativity created by mixing different groups, A.C.T.’s Young Conservatory Director Craig Slaight built the cast for this Collaborative Youth Arts Project (CYAP) by bringing together actors from three sources: our Education & Community Programs, the YC, and Destiny Arts in Oakland.

After the show the performers stepped forward to introduce themselves. The age of the actors varied from fourteen to twenty. They came from a range of places: Skyline High School in Oakland, Tam High in Mill Valley, college in San Francisco. Some were participating because they’d seen audition forms posted in their schools, some found out about the project through the YC, three had performed in last year’s CYAP, Snakes. One young actor related her own experience of switching schools and transitioning to a new cheerleading squad.

As the audience listened to the cast members’ different stories, one common thread emerged—the performers’ overriding passion for the play. The actors were exhilarated to work so closely with Salter, to see the way a script evolved, and to bring to life a brand new play. But beyond that, they were impressively aware of the play’s message.

Community Artistic Director Tyrone Davis, the play’s director, spent time during rehearsal discussing the issues and giving his actors an opportunity to develop their own perspective as they worked on their characterizations. “As a director I’m big on ensemble building,” he says. “I’m letting them know that this is not separate from what’s going on now. It’s about race. It’s about education. You don’t have to be in the Deep South to have those experiences—that kind of micro-aggression is present everywhere. I wanted them to understand it. To analyze it. Every character in the play has a point of view. It’s important to provide depth to all those characters.”

A.C.T. is telling important stories, whether it’s in productions developed by our Education & Community Programs or in shows commissioned for our Young Conservatory. Top of the Pyramid is just the latest in a line of powerful plays that includes the recent Crack. Rumble. Fly: The Bayview Stories Project as well as last year’s Snakes. At a time when the nationwide divide between communities can seem overwhelming, A.C.T. is commissioning, creating, and presenting work that bridges those gaps, showing us both who we are, and who we can become.

Top of the Pyramid runs through July 30 at The Rueff in The Strand Theater in San Francisco, and August 5–6 at Destiny Arts in Oakland.
 
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