The Mixed Blood Theater'sstaging of Suzan-Lori Parks provocative Topdog/Underdog is raw and tragic. Class and race are as much characters in this drama as the two men that inhabit the stage. More than context for the struggles of Lincoln and Booth, class and race are like twined Greek furies making the fall of the two men inevitable. The 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play tracks the relationship between Lincoln (Thomas W. Jones II) and Booth (Jahi Kearse), two African-American brothers sometimes sharing a one-room apartment and the little money that comes in. They have been abandoned by their parents, by the women that move in and out of their lives, and by a society that gives their lives no value. The conflict between these two brothers is as ineluctable as it is heartbreaking; they fight for power in the one remaining place where they can get traction.
The quickest thread is their naming (a joke of their father's), which holds a quasi-naturalist power over the two men. Lincoln has found the unlikely job of wearing white face, a stovepipe hat, and a frock coat, and pretending to be the assassinated president in a kind of sideshow arcade. Every day he sits with his back to would-be assassins who pay an entrance fee to shoot him; he dies over and over for a few dollars an hour. While Lincoln is getting shot, Booth practices three-card-monte on a cardboard square balanced on a milk crate in the apartment. This card game, which Lincoln gave up after a friend was killed, is another battlefield for the brothers.
Booth works to replicate Lincoln's skill as a hustler, disdaining Lincoln's current "honest work." He wants both to team with Lincoln and also to replace him, to leave him behind. The role of topdog is the role of usurper. In this system, there is no topdog without an underdog, and the dismantling of that system does not exist as an option for the two men. The pattern of usurpation is complicated and painful. The men share knowledge grudgingly. Though Lincoln is the older brother, it is Booth who has more information about their mother leaving. Lincoln then exposes in pieces what he knows about their father. Before Lincoln's wife left him, Booth replaced Lincoln in bed. The only thing that the two men appear to share equally is anger.
There is humor in the play. Parks' language is characterized by a verbal dexterity that results in some wonderful moments, and there is a judicious amount of physical comedy (Booth undresses to reveal two whole suits - including shoes, shirts, and ties - shoplifted from a department store). The humor wouldn't have the same pitch were it not for the underlying pathos, and functions as a reprieve from the strife of Lincoln and Booth.
The moments of humor and hope are scant obstacles for the plummeting fate of Lincoln and Booth. The final ten minutes of the play form a train wreck worthy of any Greek tragedy. The metal on tracks accelerates toward a declaration of destiny - and a commentary on being young, black, male, and poor in this country. It is not heartening, but it is moving and affecting.
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