Topdog/Underdog (2001), Suzan-Lori Parks Pulitzer Prize winning play, explores the effects of institutional racism, masculinity, and resonances of slavery on African-American men and families. The play explores the relationship of two adult brothers, Lincoln and Booth, as they attempt to build stable lives for themselves in a culture dead set on watching them fail. Lincoln and Booth are in a constant struggle to dominate the other. Utilizing Three-Card Monte as a frame for competitive brotherhood, Parks’ dialogue crackles with rhythmic intensity, and her Rep & Rev builds tensions between the brothers as their fight for dominance culminates in an act of violence.
In the Huntington Theatre Company’s production, directed by Billy Porter (dir. The Colored Museum), design elements take center stage. The set, designed by Clint Ramos, features a single room apartment surrounded by splintering beams of wood that imbue every moment with danger: one misstep and an actor could end up skewered. Driscoll Otto’s lighting design casts dim light in the apartment, looming shadows on the walls, and envelops the rest of the space in dark, deeply saturated colors, creating an atmosphere of isolation. The visual elements of the design build a claustrophobic environment in which the action unfolds. The sound, designed by Leon Rothenberg, worked harmoniously with the production at large and brought the play into the contemporary moment. The music, which consisted almost exclusively off of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 concept album To Pimp a Butterfly, forms a cross-medium dialogue between Lamar and Parks, both of whom use art to examine African-American culture and experiences.
Porter’s direction accentuates the melody of Parks’ writing. The actors playing Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and Booth (Matthew J. Harris) have very distinct voices, and the text flows easily from their mouths. Porter’s staging is nuanced and largely rooted in Naturalism, punctuated by striking moments of Expressionism. What becomes clear, through all elements of the production, is that Booth and Lincoln are products of their circumstance and environment. Abandoned by their parents at the ages of 11 and 16 respectively, left without the public support afforded to affluent neighborhoods, and living in a culture that paints Black men as inherently violent, Lincoln and Booth’s struggle for dominance is rooted in survival.
Yet, like Three-Card Monte, Lincoln and Booth are playing a rigged game. Lincoln understands this, both in life and in Three-Card Monte, but Booth is convinced he can best the system. At the top of the play, Lincoln won’t go near the cards: he remembers his past, how the cards almost cost him his life. His calling in life is throwing the cards, but he’s happy to have a job impersonating Abraham Lincoln getting shot by gleeful customers in order to survive. Booth, on the other hand, believes he can build a future by throwing the cards. He believes he can cheat the system. But the system, like an expert card thrower, always prevails. Through the course of the play, Lincoln remembers who he is, and that he’s destined to throw the cards. Ultimately, it costs him his life at the hands of his brother.
Parks foreshadows the end of the play in the names of the characters. In this sense, Topdog/Underdog is something of a Greek Tragedy, hurtling towards its unavoidable destination. And much like Greek Tragedy, it draws on mythical/historical figures from history: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. However, Booth and Lincoln are black while their historical counterparts are white. Through this casting, Parks interrogates “The Great Hole of History,” one that erases African-American stories and codifies a whitewashed American History. Through performance, this received history is continually questioned and an alternative history posited.
Topdog/Underdog is ultimately about institutionalized racism and the psychological fissures it creates – even in a familial bond as tight as brotherhood. Booth and Lincoln never understand these fissures, and therefore never have the opportunity to heal their relationship. The Huntington’s Production magnifies these divisions, contextualizing them in our contemporary political climate: a time in which we desperately need to face the truth in order to heal.