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.