Topdog/Underdog: Watch Me Now

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks

By: Michael Dykstra

Ben Brantley, theater reviewer for the New York Times, says that Topdog/Underdog is a “thrilling comic drama” that “vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” as it “considers nothing less than the existential traps of being African American and male in the United States.”

In other words, it’s just the kind of work Actors’ Theatre has always been committed to bringing to West Michigan – and it’s an electrifying kickoff to our 29th season.

Topdog/Underdog is a tale of two African American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who have had to depend on each other for survival since they were abandoned by their parents as teenagers. Lincoln, the older, is a master of the three-card monte, a street con card trick. He’s abandoned a life of crime, however, for a more respectable form of deception – he earns his living by impersonating Abraham Lincoln at a shooting arcade. Booth, on the other hand, is a petty thief who aspires to achieving his brother’s command of the monte.

The Con Game of Life

Lincoln and Booth live in a tiny apartment that serves as the stage for a blistering examination of sibling rivalry, shifting identity, poverty, racism and betrayal. Many of the brothers’ exchanges play out over shuffling cards, as Lincoln smoothly displays his skill at the three-card monte and Booth tries his best to mimic his brother’s rhythms.

“Watch me now,” Lincoln commands of his brother (and the audience), as he demonstrates the sleight of hand and misdirection that make him a monte wizard. We in the audience are just as enthralled as Booth, as we come to understand that this game is a metaphor for life, with the playwright suggesting that every human exchange is a con, and that we are only truly ourselves when nobody else is watching.

While there are heady ideas on display here, Topdog/Underdog is anything but a dry intellectual exercise. Rather, says Brantley, it is “a deeply theatrical experience.” The brothers are engaged in an elaborate dance of one-upmanship, always seeking “topdog” status. It’s an ever shifting, ever entertaining balance of power, as the two duel with their wits and their words, poking the wounds that fester between them – and indeed, that fester within the American psyche. (They’re not named Lincoln and Booth for nothing.)

The language of the play is dazzling, almost poetic in its cadence and style. It’s also very funny – so be prepared to laugh as these characters strut their stuff for you.

A Ground-Breaking Playwright

Topdog/Underdog was written by Suzan-Lori Parks, an African-American playwright and screenwriter who the New York Times dubbed “the year’s most promising playwright” in 1985. Her early plays illuminated the African-American experience, but in avant-garde and allegorical ways that didn’t lend themselves to commercial success. Still, her work was noted by Spike Lee, who directed her script, “Girl 6,” for the movies.

In 2000, Parks’ play In The Blood, a retelling of Nathaniel Hawthworne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter,” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2001, she was awarded a Macarthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. That same year, Topdog/Underdog debuted off-Broadway with Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle in the lead roles. The play then transferred to Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre and ran from April 7-August 11, 2002, with rap star Mos Def taking over for Don Cheadle.

Parks became the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize when Topdog/Underdog earned the 2002 Award for Best Drama. The play was also nominated for a Best Drama Tony Award. Wright was nominated for a Best Actor Tony.

Parks has continued to challenge herself in the years since her Pulitzer triumph. She once wrote a short play for each day for a year – collectively known as the 365 Days/365 Plays series. She published a novel, “Getting Mother’s Body.” She worked with Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions on screenplays for “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and “The Great Debaters.”

Parks told American Theatre magazine that all her plays share a common element: “The yearning for salvation: that particular kind of salvation that only the theater, of all the art forms, can offer.”

Actor’s Theatre is proud to offer this salvation to you.

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