Occasionally in the murky wasteland of Broadway, where nostalgia reigns and revivals rule, the hopeful theatergoer is led to an oasis advertised as fertile enough to water the desert. Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog, which has just won the Pulitzer Prize, is one of these. Even if its success were to be
measured solely by the numbers of young people and black people, both young and old, in the audience on any given night, Topdog could be considered a healthy sign. Parks has been writing praise-winning plays since the 1980s, but Topdog, which premiered last year at the Public Theater, is the first one to make it to Broadway. For a play by Parks it is uncharacteristically conventional–a straightforward story with familiar characters that comes close to observing the classical unities. Her earlier plays, such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A and The American Play, are bold, disconcerting experiments in theatrical form. But Topdog is more remarkable in some ways because it unleashes the radical potential inside the well-made play.
Booth and Lincoln, two African-American brothers in their 30s, share an SRO where all the action takes place. The time is a few days in some city probably in the 1960s. The period, like the location, is deliberately vague enough to warn us off the issue beat. This is not social realism, even if it looks a little bit like it. Lincoln, the elder brother, was once a legendary three-card monte dealer. He left the game after his partner was shot, and has been working as a whiteface Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade. Customers can re-enact the sixteenth President's last moments by stealing up behind the costumed Linc and firing a cap gun into his skull. Legitimate work, maybe, but humiliating from the point of view of little brother Booth, who hopes, with Lincoln's help, to get himself into the street game as a three-card dealer. He wants the women and the money and the props that come with a dealer's success. He can move his mouth and he can move his body. He's just no good moving his hands.
Lincoln, former master of this street hustle, is the topdog. As superbly performed by Jeffrey Wright, he is sly, sometimes robotic and calculating, all knowingness, drink and disappointment. Booth, played by rap artist and actor Mos Def, the other half of the most thrilling duo on Broadway, is the antic underdog–a self-deluded, sweetly homicidal baby. We know, given their names, how they will end up. This is not the point.
The game is the point. Both brothers are trying to follow the moves in their family history, looking for a clue to the winning card; they each sense–but can't quite see–a pattern as formal and controlling as the one in the game. Their father gave them these ridiculous names as a joke. If their life is a game, it's one their parents quit when the boys were still teenagers: First the mother moved on, and then, as if by some mysterious prior agreement, the father vanished. (If this were a strictly realistic piece, some of this retelling of family history might sound slightly off. Nevertheless…) The brothers are still in the game. Their moves may have been determined by some destiny or joke, but their language flows. Parks writes dialogue so vigorous and beautiful and hilarious you'd almost think these men were free. Lincoln has more lines and better ones, but Mos Def's strutting, styling Booth is language made physical.
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The vivid exchanges between the brothers are punctuated by the dealer's hypnotic, mechanical patter. Lincoln's is loose and hypnotic, Booth's mechanical and jerky:
Lincoln: Lean in close and watch me now: who see thuh black card who see the black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner pick thuh black card that's thuh winner pick the red card that's thuh loser pick thuh other red card that's thuh other loser pick thuh black card you pick thuh winner.
Every time the patter appears, the relationship between the brothers is slightly revised. Like the shabby set by Riccardo Hernandez, which undergoes minor transformations that softly indicate rearrangements in power and psychology, these improvisations are small, but they are all the latitude these two men have been given. In addition to relying on sleight of hand, three-card monte works by creating confusion about what is real and what is part of the game. The dealer always has his shills who work the crowd by seeming to be part of it; he usually pretends to be reluctant to throw the cards. The question of what's real requires some careful thinking, as Linc is wise enough to point out to his heedless brother: "First thing you learn is what is. Next thing you learn is what ain't. You don't know what is you don't know what ain't, you don't know shit."
It's important to stress that as audience members, we often don't know shit. We don't know when Linc is playing for real and when he is conning his brother by letting him pick correctly. But Linc is being played too, and soon enough the game slams shut on both brothers.
Theater pieces have been made from games like this since the Renaissance. They appeal to audiences, and especially to critics, because they invite us to indulge in the kind of metaphorical musings that make us feel connected and smart. But Parks has always insisted that her work must be immune to such readings. In interviews, where she is either faux-na*f or simply exasperated with the press ritual that accompanies every production ("I'm less interested in 'meaning,' whatever that word means? I'm not quite sure, I keep meaning to look up meaning"), she sensibly tries to redirect attention to what is going on between the people in her play. And one of the pleasures of Topdog is that it doesn't give us any time to work in our "issues." George C. Wolfe has directed the play with a swift, inevitable momentum that keeps us trying and failing to keep up with the winning card. Like his work with other strong playwrights like Tony Kushner and Anna Deavere Smith, Topdog's staging has none of the tendentiousness he laid on Jelly's Last Jam or Bring in da Noise. This is not August Wilson or Athol Fugard or Tom Stoppard. If Parks has a black man in white face, she has a black man in white face. If there is a game of chance, there is a game of chance. Lean in close. Watch the moves and turn off the metaphors. These lives are the shit you don't know about. That's why you have to look close.
The power of our response to the murder we have been expecting at the end of Topdog is thus more visceral than either awe or pity; if we have been watching closely, we experience just how it went down. We begin as spectators, like the crowd around the dealer and his sidemen (to indulge in metaphor). If we look away long enough to worry about meaning, we'll miss the moves and the game will vanish, as it does on the street with the first sign of authority (to extend the metaphor). But if we pay attention, we will be in the game when the final card is thrown. I think this special kind of immediacy is what distinguishes Parks's work, especially the more experimental pieces, which draw us in through their language but keep us off-guard with their form. And I suspect that having taken the trouble to create it, she is determined to safeguard it against too much talk and interpretation, especially of the what-this-means-about-African-American-theater/life variety. This is the stuff. This is it.