Topdog/Underdog, which just received a sterling production at Dillard University, is a weird play. Yet it deservedly earned playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the Pulitzer Prize in 2002. The narrative soars on an updraft of imagination similar to that of dreams. On the one hand, you are perplexed by the fantastic connections and transformations, and at the same time, you sense a potent, veiled reality beneath the seeming chaos.
The play is framed by three-card Monte. In a dreary, shack-like apartment (well imagined by Cortheal Clark), a young black man is practicing the moves of this street hustle. The point of the game is to get the onlookers to bet that they know which is the winning card. He slides the three cards over one another on a piece of cardboard that's propped on top of two plastic cartons. All the while, he runs a spiel at imaginary onlookers.
A grotesque figure comes in the door. The figure seems to be a black man in white face, costumed as Abraham Lincoln, top hat, beard and all. Lincoln (Devin McCoy) stumbles into the totally absorbed Monte player, who leaps aside, pulling a pistol from his sweat pants. We have now got the basic elements of the play before our eyes, although there is much more under the surface. The black Honest Abe works in an amusement arcade where he sits in a theater seat and is regularly assassinated by the customers firing blanks into his back. That's strange enough, but adding to it is the fact that the guy's name is actually Lincoln. His younger brother (the Monte player) is named Booth (Martin Bradford). Their drunken, womanizing father apparently picked these unlikely cognomens as a joke.
Lincoln used to be a whiz at the Monte hustle " one of the best ever, by his own estimation. He would take a widow's life savings and not even blush. But he's given it up and wants no part of it. Booth, on the other hand, is and always has been gainfully unemployed. He's got a talent for 'boosting," better known as shoplifting. That keeps the brothers in sharp clothes, but Booth wants Lincoln to hitch up with him as a Monte partner. Lincoln, who sleeps in a beaten-up recliner, certainly misses the high-rolling good old days to some extent. After all, he could haul in a grand a day on the streets he says, but he resolutely refuses to go back to the hustle.
It's worth noting that the Monte hustle is more complicated than it seems. The person who is laying down the cards is the dealer, but he has secret confederates. One guy is the lookout to spot cops. Another one is the 'stick man," who plays and apears to win in order to draw a crowd of suckers. Lonnie, Link's longtime stick man got shot, which may explain Link's change of profession. In any case, when Lincoln is tempted to go back to Monte, he explains the mechanics of it to Booth in a fascinating 'how to" demonstration.
Gradually, we get to know this duo and their world. Booth likes to brag about his sexual prowess and the wild times he has with his girlfriend Grace. He also taunts Link about his impotence. Throwing salt in the wound, he claims to have shacked up with Link's ex-wife before she became an ex. All this bravado is hollow, however, if one is to judge (as Link does) by the pile of porn mags under Booth's bed.
The brothers' dire circumstances become more understandable when they talk about their upbringing, which was sordid at best and ultimately disastrous. Their parents deserted them when they were adolescents, leaving them to their own inadequate devices.
Under Raymond Vrazel's direction McCoy and Bradford gave inspired performances. They were sometimes funny, sometimes heart wrenching, and they always stayed alive in the moment.
Many years ago, the Bard asked, "What is in a name?" A story of two brothers named Lincoln and Booth can only end one way. Their father's joke was like a mark of doom on them. In the end, Booth shoots his girlfriend after she stands him up and shoots his brother as well. The lights fade. The surreal dream is over, but the images and words swirl around in your mind for hours afterward.
- Topdog/Underdog is the story of two brothers trying to escape a cruel fate.