This is an intense theatrical experience because there’s just no way forward for these two brothers. Uneducated, poor, black, abandoned by their parents a long time ago, and never part of a safety net—the odds are so stacked against them that it’s a testament to the human spirit that they managed to grow up and survive for as long as they did.
. . . this show . . . is about more than two sad lives—it is an indictment of the systemic failures that permeate too many lives, particularly minority lives. It’s not afraid to go places that are dark and damning. And it does it very, very well.
“Topdog Underdog” isn’t an easy play; the brother’s lives are complicated, and there is so much damage from the past that it has blocked their abilities to plan ahead or even see a future. Certainly, the past informs their relationships—with each other, with women, with Lincoln’s boss, with strangers on a bus. At times, especially during the first act, there is almost an echo of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ in the pacing, in the way the memories they hurl at each other are twisted, and in their mutual gaslighting.
They love and hate each other, trust each other and trust no one, including each, need each other, want each other’s admiration, and want to see the other gone.
The brothers are named Lincoln and Booth, which is fitting as they are smothering in sibling rivalry and resentment. Lincoln, the older, was well-known on the streets as a three-card monte dealer, but quit and got a job—with a paycheck and benefits. Booth, his younger brother, is a wanna-be in the con game, and at the moment wholly dependent on his brother for money coming into the household.
They are temporarily living together in Booth’s apartment; Lincoln’s wife Cookie threw him out, mistaking his depression for a lack of interest in her. Booth is infatuated with Grace, a local girl, who used to be his girlfriend, but has moved on. So the brothers are once again together.
The job Lincoln got, ironically, is a gig at an arcade playing Abraham Lincoln sitting in the box at the theatre; tourists and other customers pay to shoot at him with a real gun, albeit one retrofitted to shoot caps. He wears a long frock coat, top hat, beard and whiteface, but this is a “sit-down job” with a regular paycheck and benefits. Only he might not have it for much longer—the owners are contemplating replacing him with a wax figure.
Booth, in the meanwhile, spends his days practicing his three-card monte skills, yearning after Grace, and dreaming of a better life. He dreams of a life of having enough money to go to the clubs, eat out, marry Grace, maybe get an apartment with its own bathroom—but he’d have the respect of the street.
The play is filled with heartbreaking moments, such as when Booth uses his admittedly amazing shoplifting skills to get new suits for both him and his brother, including shoes, socks, shirt and tie. They put on this new finery over torn, raggedy undershirts. And when Booth invites Grace up to have a romantic meal, he gets something sparkling with a cork and sets a table on a plastic tablecloth with paper plates, and take-out containers laid ceremoniously on top of the plates; but he has candles.
As Lincoln, Jerome Keith Hunter makes being the responsible but so torn older brother look easy. In the space of one scene, he manages to look like a young man in his first sit-down job, and a few minutes later you can see the weariness of the daily survival wars eating him.
Louis E. Davis plays Booth, the softer, more volatile younger brother. He is genius at creating the fantasy world that Booth lives in—a world where he will be the king of three-card monte and win the girl and be able to have nice, sit-down dinners, and be loved; in spite of his survival skills, he really isn’t built for reality. He’s one of the saddest characters I have ever seen on a stage; Davis does a superb job letting us see the emotionally-stunted little boy beneath the swagger.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning script by Suzan-Lori Parks is briskly directed by DeMone Seraphin in a space that has been constructed to look as hard-scrabble and worn and flimsy as the constructs of their lives. Using unfinished wood and cardboard, a single bed, a worn recliner and some milk crates, the design team led by Nephelle Andonyadis has created a suitably dreary backdrop for this show that is about more than two sad lives—it is an indictment of the systemic failures that permeate too many lives, particularly minority lives. It’s not afraid to go places that are dark and damning. And it does it very, very well.
Advisory: Strong language; sexual innuendo; a gunshot.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.
“TOPDOG UNDERDOG,” runs from March 14 – April 14, 2019, at WSC Avant Bard at Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA. For more information, please click here.