Topdog/Underdog

The scene opens on a black man shuffling three cards on a makeshift table of milk crates and cardboard. He’s standing in a ratty, sparsely furnished apartment but focuses solely on the game. He talks enthusiastically, rhythmically weaving his words and pretending to address potential gamblers. But his movements aren’t as smooth as his talk is; he lacks a certain grace and ease that would otherwise make his game perfect. He is too focused on the impression he gives off, and forgets what is going on beneath the surface. The shuffler is playing three-card monte, a street-con game he is desperately trying to master.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” was a Broadway smash last year. The production, which has featured Don Cheadle and Mos Deff, earned Parks the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, making her the first black woman to win the award. D.C.’s Studio Theater is bringing the play to Washington as the opener for its 2003-04 season.

Hustling, the weight of collective history and personal memory are the forces that drive this play about two brothers named Lincoln (Thomas W. Jones II) and Booth (Jahi Kearse) – their father’s idea of a joke.

Jones and Kearse give stunning performances, with fervor and intensity that become overpowering in the Studio’s intimate space. Parks has written a play that interweaves allegory and naturalism to beautifully, and the two actors certainly do it justice.

Booth is the younger brother; he has a quick hand for stealing but not quick enough for cards. Lincoln, the older brother, was once a master of the game but he swore off cards years ago, lost his wife and now works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade. He wears an ill-fitting suit, beard, hat and white face paint; and people pay for the chance to “assassinate” him.

Parks’ 1993 play, “The America Play,” also featured a black man who dresses up as Lincoln and allows tourists to shoot him. In “Topdog/Underdog,” Parks allows the paradox to become a complex character, while retaining and exploding the cruel irony of the situation. The continuing presence of three-card monte emphasizes the point that beneath the shifting superficiality of things there are huge and terrifying forces at work. The past is never far behind, and one must remember that notion in order to win.

“Topdog/Underdog” takes place entirely within the space of Booth’s cramped apartment, where Lincoln is staying. As the play progresses, Lincoln loses his job to a wax dummy and Booth becomes increasingly desperate for the chance to make something of himself. The brothers’ relationship is as explosive as the situation in which they find themselves.

Abandoned as teenagers by their parents, the brothers have only each other, and their relationship is one of love and hate. Their conversations and fights weigh heavy with memories of the past and their parents. Each brother has a history that surfaces during the course of the play.

The final scene is a heart-wrenching culmination of the tensions that have been meticulously built up during the course of the play. It is performed with so much hatred and love that the difference becomes negligible. Jones and Kearse have worked together before (“SLAM!,” a Studio Theater production that was written and directed by Jones) and they achieve stunning chemistry onstage.

“Topdog/Underdog” has been aptly described as a modern Greek tragedy of sorts. But Parks’ talent is best emphasized in the moments of pure carnivalesque joy and love that she allows to surface in a play that would otherwise be a top-heavy tragedy. Without these moments, her play would have lost its sense of why life is precious and why tragedy deserves to be called by such a name.

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