Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member
In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks, two brothers struggles with some of the cultural, family, and societal aspects of being young black men in America. Named Lincoln and Booth by their father for a joke, the boys were abandoned by both parents when they were young with nothing more than a $500 “inheritance” each to get by and left to take care of each other. Lincoln is the titular “topdog”: older, steadily employed (as an arcade Abraham Lincoln whom tourists can “shoot”), possessed of great skill with cards he has used to make a living before and could again. Booth, the younger sibling, can boast only of a ratty apartment and an on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend Grace. His skill at three-card monte is far less than his brother’s and he doesn’t really appear to understand the scam that the game is, yet he desires nothing else than to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps as the best dealer anywhere.
Parks paints these siblings with some beautiful language. Of his gig as a Lincoln impersonator, Linc says, “They say the clothes make the man. All day long I wear that getup. But that don’t make me who I am. Old black coat not even real old just fake old. It’s got worn spots on the elbows, little raggedy places that’ll break through into holes before the winter’s out.” And his feelings about the gun used by the tourists are complicated by memories of a best friend gunned down in the streets: “The gun is always cold. Winter or summer the gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me he can feel that I’m warm and he knows I’m alive. And if I’m alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, it’s real.”
For his part, Booth is more concerned about his relationship with Grace. In a highly embellished recounting of a night in her company, he says, “She wants me back. She wants me back so bad she wiped her hand over the past where we wasn’t together just so she could say we ain’t never been apart. She wiped her hand over our breakup. She wiped her hand over her childhood, her childhood years, her first boyfriend, just so she could say that she been mine since the dawn of time.”
The notion of deception runs through almost all of the play. The brothers are never totally honest with each other, both keeping secrets and outright lying. The central card game, too, three-card monte, is notorious for its power to deceive “marks” into believing they have a chance to win when, as Linc points out, “It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when the man lets you.” Both brothers are guilty of not letting the other win in one way or another.
Jelani Pitcher and Keith Illidge are superb as Booth and Lincoln respectively, each creating just enough sympathy for his character that we can (almost) overlook when they do something unkind or even terrible. And Parks’ script helps there as well: she creates so many marvelously humorous moments that the audience doesn’t have time to anticipate any darkness. Director Tim Rhoze calls the play “a fierce combination of dark comedy and high-stakes drama,” and he certainly does his job well in bringing us that combination, both in the pacing of the scenes and in the performances from his actors. I could have done with a lot less of the overwhelming jazz music playing through many scenes, but it did certainly set a mood, which is undoubtedly what Roze wanted. In all, Topdog/Underdog is a powerful piece of theatre, and Fleetwood-Jourdain does the play and its author proud.
Topdog/Underdog is a Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre production now playing at Noyes Cultural Center, Noyes St, Evanston, until July 29. Performance times may vary; check the website at Noyes Cultural Center. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.