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Some Thoughts on Billy Porter’s Topdog/Underdog at the Huntington

First off, the set energized me to the core. It consisted of a dilapidated, nondescript room at the center of the stage that didn’t bind itself to one moment in time. It feels as if it could’ve been a room during any time within the 20th and 21st centuries. The director, Billy Porter, goes as far as saying the room could belong to any time post-Abe Lincoln and Booth, but I’d say comparing it to a 19th century room may be a stretch. Nonetheless, it has a timeless quality that is in direct dialogue with Parks’s use of timelessness and the past as present and the present as past. Time is layered and non-linear and the set manifests this. Another choice that pointed to the play’s timelessness was the subtle sound of a turning record, a symbol of the past that was present in the world of the play, alongside Kendrick Lamar songs and the first song of Moonlight’s soundtrack. Past and present lived together, not divorced from one another. The record sound element might also symbolize Booth’s feeling of being unable to move on with his life since the music never begins on the record – it is in perpetual “about to play” mode. Booth feels like his “music” never plays because his brother hinders him from being who he wants to be. For the most part, Lincoln is the topdog and Booth the underdog, and Booth feels like he needs to become the topdog in order for the music of his life to start playing. Another interesting design choice was the placement of sword-like spikes or gigantic thorns springing from the ground immediately outside the room, and surrounding it. Outside is no safe place for these men; the very act of going outside means danger. It was interesting to see that Lincoln’s and Booth’s downfalls happen after the first moment we witness them outside their room. The act of going out into the world triggers their quick downward spiral.

I’m also super interested in how the “topdog/underdog” quality plays out in the piece. At first glance, Lincoln is the topdog throughout, but his role changes as power dynamics change, and I think it’s fair to say that both brothers take on both roles at different times. The forward slash in TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is perrrrfection, introducing the idea that the brothers inhabit both roles at once and are constantly dealing with a hurting relationship fraught with power tensions.

Some questions: Why does Suzan-Lori Parks conjure Abe Lincoln and Booth in this play? I figure it has to do with her Rep and Rev process, where she repeats something from the past and modifies it, but why specifically these two individuals? I can’t help but think of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s use of the Yoruba pantheon as a way to uplift characters that aren’t generally uplifted in our own society. Is Parks doing something similar – elevating a conflict between two brothers by connecting it to an important historical duo with conflict at the heart of their relationship?


About gbfontenele

Director and dramaturg in training. Free spirit and questioner from the beginning.

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