The Broadway Theatre Review: Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog
Whether it’s the red or the black card that is the winner, this spirited revival of Topdog/Underdog now playing at the Golden Theatre on Broadway is the medicine we all need to get through these difficult days ahead. Written most dynamically by Suzan-Lori Parks (Public’s Plays for the Plague Year; White Noise), the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, unsurprisingly for this 2001 play, this vibrant exploration of sibling rivalry and resentment feels as powerful and engaging as ever. It’s timely and explosive, particularly today as this country walks nervously towards Election Day, uncomfortably gripped in an increasingly violent war of hate inside politics.
The play feels as ripe with meaning as it must have felt some twenty years ago when it first hit the stage at the Public Theater. Maybe even more. Filled with energy and insight, the Broadway revival, directed with a serious intent by Kenny Leon (Broadway’s American Son), unleashes the difficult troubling existence of two brothers, fascinatingly (and cruelly) named Lincoln, solidly portrayed by Corey Hawkins (Broadway’s Six Degrees of Separation) and Booth, captivating played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (HBO’s “Watchmen“; “The Greatest Showman“). Their names send forth a message, both captivating and telling, that plays out a history intensely before our very eyes. It’s a conflict in the making, unraveling a replay for us all to see, in close quarters without any support from the outside world.
Parks’ Lincoln, the older of the two, finds himself colliding with and crashing on his younger brother’s recliner, in need but without a lot of faith in the future. He is newly discarded, separated from the wife we only hear about in a sideways kind of way. He goes to work daily and unapologetically, to a sit-down job with benefits that fit as uncomfortably as that outfit he is made it wear. His brother, Booth; handsome, strong, and virile, steals his way through an existence that keeps him somewhat combustible, trapped in this rundown room with no running water and a single bed propped up with old porn magazines. Aching for something more grand, he exists, wanting more, even if it is a con and a lie. The whole small roomed scenario seems lopsided and uncomfortable; delirious but without hope. And that’s only how the first card is played.
Designed strongly by Arnulfo Maldonado (Broadway’s A Strange Loop), with draped reminders of the fateful theatre where Lincoln was shot so many years prior, with perfectly formulated costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s American Buffalo), detailed lighting by Allen Lee Hughes (Broadway’s A Soldier’s Play), and a strong sound design by Justin Ellington (Broadway’s for colored girls…), the room speaks volumes as is rotates into view. Determined but without focus, it looks like a firetrap just waiting to go up in flames. And as written by Parks, sparks start to fly quickly as the two engage in a battle for who will sit on top at the end of the day, throwing the cards in hopes of a more fulfilling, or more exciting future. We just aren’t quite sure where and when the sparks will land. And who will be engulfed in the upcoming fire.
“He’s getting deep,” one brother says to the other, but if history, their namesake set-up, and Lincoln’s whitefaced day job are any indication at all, the elder’s days are numbered, at the boardwalk arcade and beyond. Everyday he sits down at his job, dressed up like Abraham Lincoln so tourists can shoot him in the back with toy cap guns and we can’t help but feel the discomfort. The idea, although historically accurate, feels just so messed up and complicated to comprehend. So it’s no surprise that the future looks bleak for this man. Layoffs or not. And we can feel it in his very textured performance and frame.
Parks is a known admirer of Abraham Lincoln and writes about the legacy of the man and the meaning to those who descend from slaves. Topdog/Underdog, through the unpacking of complicated brotherly love and family identity, tries to explain that legacy inside the story of two African-American brothers struggling to stay above water. Hawkins’ Lincoln lives with eyes cast down. taking a job that is as uncomfortable as life must be for this man in that single room with no running water. It’s clear he got the job because he accepted less than what the white man before him would. And all one can say, watching the weight of that legacy on his frame is “this shit is hard” to take. But Parks does not judge the legacy of Lincoln in this play, but rather believes the man and his death has “created an opening with that hole in his head,” enjoying pushing forth this discomfort into the audience through her own Lincoln and asking us to see what lies ahead.
In a way, we all have to pass through that historic hole in Lincoln’s head to understand the quest that lies ahead for this country as we watch the mid-term elections do collective damage to our psyche. Living large in their small slowly tightening story at the Golden Theatre, the play drives forward, sometimes intensely, while other times taking its time a bit too slowly. I kept thinking about Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt which moved its unsettling story forward gathering tension with each moment and each scene. It unpacked that fear and anxiety perfectly on that stage. Stoppard just never lets us off the hook, particularly because he never lets us leave the story. Topdog/Underdog, on the other hand, keeps losing that momentum here and there, giving us the space to disconnect, during intermission and during moments inside each of the scenes, here and there. But when it does flicker the burning edge upward and with continued energy, the flames find their form, scorching the old-style curtains that surround this decrepit room with a heat that can’t be denied.
The two actors dominate, taking full control of the energy and tensions around them. They flick and pour out the medicine and morality that lives and breaths inside them. The messiness Carrie’s forward, born out of their upbringing and family history with magnetic resonance. It’s a sharply constructed interaction, that stuffs dreams and love underneath the bed with such determination. It collides strongly with all that violence and unfairness that lives outside that door, including the Three-Card love and desire that will burn them all alive. Reenacting that emotionally charged movement in history at Ford’s Theatre, Topdog/Underdog teases the dream of some sort of better connection for these brothers, but also gives rise to other darker conflicts that were born when a mother shoved her life into plastic bags and left. Inheritance or not, Topdog/Underdog illuminates a shift in positions resurrecting a larger sad family history steeped in abandonment and pain, while never releasing them from its heavy burden.
Haunted by a past that refuses to let go, the flame inside Lincoln’s legacy and this country’s enduring struggle with racism hangs on the side curtains just waiting to ignite. Topdog/Underdog, brought to life by Parks twenty years ago and inside this Broadway production today, raises all those ideas that hang in the background waiting to engulf our world. Take notice of this production and this play, and find your way in so that it may live on inside you as intensely as intended. That fire burns strong in American politics and in our collective hearts these days. Filling us with dread and fear of a possible future within this country and maybe the world at large. This play’s presence is needed here, today, and it’s legacy should not be forgotten.