“Topdog/Underdog” Proves Itself a Modern American Classic at Shakespeare & Co.
Two brothers locked in an eternal fraternal embrace/chokehold with an intimacy and specificity communicated so convincingly and powerfully that tremors of feeling well up in you and raise the hairs on your arms, the hackles on your neck and finally leave you breathless as if punched in the gut. Brothers are useful barometers. You come from the same place. Why did things go the way they did for him and not for you? Why do I have certain qualities that he does not and why do I feel this way and act the way I do when he does not? From the stage or the audience you look and ask what do we share?
“Topdog/Underdog” is the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit by MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, Suzan-Lori Parks that pits two brothers in an SRO against each other after they have done battle with the world outside and the masks they wear. They rely on each other, challenge each other, face what it means to be a black man in America today and what, if any, future there is for them tomorrow.
The two brothers are named Lincoln and Booth, a joke on their father’s part, and Lincoln actually ends up playing Lincoln in an arcade. He dresses up as the 16th President in white face with a strap-on beard in a local arcade and gives customers the opportunity to shoot him over and over throughout the day, as if on a loop. This is startlingly how we meet him. He is the breadwinner and only source of income which gains him entry and rights to sleep in his brother’s one room, no running water dingey flat.
His brother Booth we first encounter practicing his three-card monte skills “You pick the red one, you pick a loser. You pick the other red one, you pick the other loser. You pick the black one, you pick the winner.” Booth is unemployed, “You don’t see me holding down a job… ’cuz it’s bullshit!” and wants his brother to teach him how to “run the cards” but Lincoln refuses because of a traumatic loss of a friend in the past. Lincoln is now tied to his respectable “sit down job with benefits.”
It is a wild, contentious, playful relationship that encompasses take-out dinners of beef or skrimps, memories of their home with its concrete backyard or playing the game of three-card monte, a game where the dealer only lets you win when he wants you to win. Parks uses explosive language and writes stinging, swift dialogue that director Regge Life has conducted to a fare thee well. This production makes abundantly clear how this play was chosen by The New York Times critics as the most influential of the last 25 years and one can see evidence of its influence on the great black playwright’s working today-Jeremy O. Harris, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Robert O’Hara, and Aeshea Harris.
You can’t take your eyes off these two actors. Bryce Michael Wood as Lincoln is powerfully compact, terrifically muscular and thoughtful in all his movements. You can watch him thinking and read his intent. His monologue that closes the first act is mesmerizing and his relationship with a deck of cards on a dresser is powerfully loaded so that when he reaches for them, you half expect to hear “At last, my arm is complete again!” Deaon Griffin-Pressley as Booth is the more volatile of the two and it seems like his mouth is outrunning his thoughts but he has surprises himself and has the power to electrify the audience into stunned silence late in the play. This play of fraternal reminiscence, familial bonding and gamesmanship both playful and with deadly intent does not shy away from the tragic outcome in store for many young black men in America today.
Above the set is a square of picture-perfect moulding hung in the light grid but inside you can see the burnt-out husks of lathing that mark this mansion on the hill as a tenement, set design by Cristina Todesco. Great use of shadows by lighting designer Matthew Miller and perfect costume design by Stella Schwartz. Booth comes home from shoplifting dressed in layers of suits, “I stole generously” and it’s especially fun to see Lincoln’s self-satisfied grin light up his face when he gets the necktie he wanted all along off Booth. The evening opens with the sounds, designed by Brendan Doyle, of an arcade (pinball & air hockey) playing alongside a recording of the Emancipation Proclamation: “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
All forces on stage are managed by director Regge Life who orchestrates this game of struggles with love and ferocity. It is a great privilege to attend this show and especially in the Tina Packer Playhouse where historical epics have resonated for years.