Topdog/Underdog: How does this American play about race resonate on Canada’s West Coast?

The Arts Club Theatre is presenting Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks.

In Topdog/Underdog, Michael Blake plays an African-American Lincoln impersonator named Lincoln. (Photo by David Cooper)

Big chunks of this play about African-American despair are boring. Said the white critic.

In Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, brothers Lincoln and Booth—their father gave them their names as a joke—share a single room. The toilet is down the hall. There is no running water. Lincoln works at an amusement park, where he puts on whiteface and dresses as Abraham Lincoln. Patrons pay to shoot blanks at him and watch him pretend to die. Booth, who is younger, doesn’t have a job, but he’s desperate for Lincoln to teach him a street hustle called the three-card monte. Lincoln was a genius at the three-card monte before he gave it up and sought “legit” employment.

These guys are screwed. Topdog/Underdog is like Waiting for Godot—with more explicit social analysis. Domestically, Lincoln and Booth were abandoned. Their mother and father tried to make a home for them—even though the back yard was concrete and the front yard was full of trash—but their parents’ demons took over and the boys were on their own by the time they were 16 and 11. Socioeconomically they can’t win. As Lincoln says to Booth when he’s teaching him the card hustle and Booth is taking the role of the mark: “You may think you have a chance, but the only time you pick right is when the man lets you.” And, romantically, they are doomed. Sexually, they were scarred by their childhoods and now women are interested in them only as meal tickets. Referring to Grace, his ex, Booth says, “I had my little employment difficulty and she needs time to think.” [Read more…]

Why did Topdog/Underdog win a Pulitzer? This production isn’t telling.

Playwright Suzanne Lori Parks is a big deal—but why?

In Topdog/Underdog, an African American man makes a living doing whiteface as Abraham Lincoln—and getting shot.

I don’t know if I’ve really seen this play yet. Topdog/Underdog won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its author, Suzan-Lori Parks, is considered by many to be an important voice in American theatre. But, in this production from Seven Tyrants Theatre, Topdog/Underdog is boring and the script looks awkward.

There are several possible explanations for this disjuncture. One is that the play just isn’t very good. All sorts of mediocre scripts have won Pulitzer Prizes. I’m lookin’ at you, The Heidi Chronicles and Talley’s Folly. [Read more…]

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