Topdog/Underdog Plays It Close to the Heart

Photo by David Cooper

Topdog/Underdog tells the tale of Lincoln and Booth, two brothers given famous names by their father as a joke, setting them up for a lifetime of rivalry. Dead broke and forced by circumstance to cohabit a shabby apartment, the brothers get under each other’s skin, dig into shared tragic past, and struggle to play their few remaining cards right. This Pulitzer Prize-winning play, written by Suzan-Lori Parks, is a darkly comedic meditation on brotherly love/ sibling rivalry, and playing with the cards you are dealt.

Lincoln (played by Michael Blake) and Booth (by Luc Roderique) are African-American men, poor and youngish, but old enough to feel the walls closing in. The entire play takes place in Booth’s seedily furnished rooming house bedroom: mattress, reclining chair, and heaped piles of nudie magazines. Three milk-crates are stacked at centre stage— this switches between serving as their dining table and a place to practice three-card monte. The play opens with Booth working on the classic scam: “Watch me close, watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card?”

Booth isn’t much good at moving the cards, “a double left-handed mutherfucker”, as Lincoln calls him. But he’s committed to the dream of being a hustler. His older brother used to make good money running a three-card monte scam and Booth gets after him to show him how it is done. But Lincoln has sworn off the cards after a former associate was murdered. He has a day job now, playing his presidential namesake at an arcade, where tourists line up to shoot him in the head while he sits and pretends to watch a play.   

We first see Lincoln entering Booth’s room in full Honest Abe attire, top hat, long black coat, and white face paint. Fitting, considering President Lincoln’s last night was spent at a theatre where actors wore blackface. This costume spooks Booth, who immediately pulls a gun from the back of his pants and threatens to shoot his older brother: “I don’t like you wearing that bullshit, that shit, that bull, that disguise, that getup, that mutherfuckinguise anywhere in the daddy-dick-sticking vicinity of my humble abode.”  

A lesser playwright could have made these brothers sound like nothing but dumb thugs, but not Parks, who (it deserves to be mentioned again) earned a Pulitzer Prize for this script. Lincoln is smooth, silver-tongued while Booth blurts vulnerability and brutality in a single line. It is a joy to watch actors Blake and Roderique fire their lines back and forth. They have perfected a brotherly banter, which can switch from a threat to a surprisingly intimate recollection, and back, in the time it takes to open a bag of Chinese takeout or pour a couple of drinks. The action is confined to just one small room, so it comes to the dialogue to stretch out and take in the lives of Lincoln and Booth, all the crap they’ve come through, all their crumbling schemes/dreams.  

Again and again, the brothers circle around the card table. Three-card monte is more than just a game, more than just a scam. It made Lincoln ‘top dog’ for a time. Booth hopes it will do the same for him, so much so that he changes his name to 3-card. This game is a way to hustle up some dignity, or at least some cash, against all odds and despite grinding poverty.

But the game is rigged and it isn’t easy to build something substantial on a deck of cards. Topdog/Underdog, like Death of a Salesman, is skeptical of the American dream, and whether it is possible for the underdog to truly change their name/ cards/ stars. Blake and Roderique enact a tragic struggle, as brothers bantering and squabbling in a small room. It is a performance not to be missed.