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.

Or maybe I don’t get it. I’m a liberal Canadian white guy and Topdog/Underdog is about the experience of two impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged African-American brothers.

As a joke, their father named them Lincoln and Booth, after the Republican president and the man who shot him. As the play opens, Lincoln is coming home to the tiny apartment he shares with Booth. He’s still in the make-up and costume that he wears as a Lincoln impersonator at an amusement park. At work, he sits, in character, pretending to watch a play. Customers pay to assassinate him with toy guns.

It would be hard to find a juicier theatrical metaphor. Lincoln has to pretend to be white to gain employment but, even then, he is subjected to the violence of race-based grievance.

So what the hell is he supposed to do? That seems to be the central question in Topdog/Underdog. Straitjacketed by systemic racism, Booth and Lincoln’s options are limited. Booth wants Lincoln to teach him how to work the three-card monte scam that once netted Lincoln a thousand dollars a day. But Lincoln can’t do it; he remembers the pain he caused his marks and the toll that the associated violence took on his friends.

It’s not like the brothers have social supports that they can turn to, either. Their parents abandoned the boys when they were 11 and 16. And the women who were once in Lincoln and Booth’s lives found them inadequate in terms of both financial and sexual performance.

So it’s easy to read Topdog/Underdog as a kind of Waiting for Godot, an examination of futility and existential despair, imagined this time through the explicit experiential lens of black males living in the underclass in the US.

That’s all potentially resonant, so why isn’t its presentation interesting? In this production, Topdog/Underdog lost me because I felt like it was repetitively presenting me with circumstances without bothering to emotionally engage me. Reviews of other productions, including the one mounted by Obsidian Theatre that was nominated for a number of Dora Awards in Toronto, mention the subtlety of the brothers’ relationship, but I didn’t get a lot of that from this version. Aadin Church, who’s playing Lincoln, delivers a responsive, emotionally grounded portrait; when he literally sings the blues at one point, it’s heartfelt. And, although David Lloyd (Booth) has fewer chops—you can see him going for effects—he’s giving it his all. Still, the sum of the characters’ interactions—David Newham directed the actors—didn’t take me deep into the nuances of the brothers’ struggles for status. My privileged gaze might be getting in the way here. And maybe the script requires more of the artists who are interpreting it.

In this interpretation—and it’s important to recognize that this version may be disguising the play’s true potential—Topdog/Underdog struck me as structurally clumsy. It contains high-stakes naturalistic scenes: Booth has a gun and you know that combination can’t be good. But the text also employs arch conventions. Both brothers deliver long soliloquies, talking to themselves in coherent paragraphs, describing action. They share a single tiny room and, at one point, Lincoln goes on a long rant, presumably unaware that Booth is in the space because he’s hiding behind a screen. All of that is decidedly unnaturalistic.

Critic Ben Brantley of the New York Times has praised Parks’s theatrical audacity. Maybe a bold production of Topdog/Underdog would embrace the apparently disparate nature of the play’s theatrical strategies. Watching the Seven Tyrants production, I certainly thought there was more room for slapstick—when Lincoln practices more theatrical deaths for work, for instance.

But director David Newham’s most significant stylistic choice, the inclusion of a live three-piece jazz ensemble works only intermittently. Under bandleader Daniel Deorksen, some musical choices enhance the theatrical moment, building tension; other choices are distracting.

I strongly suspect that, in a sure-handed interpretation, a willingness and ability to commit to the play’s many shades, including its comedy and its emotional undertow—would obliterate any concerns about style. In this production, Topdog/Underdog feels rudderless and shapeless—but that may not be the whole story.

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by David Newham. A Seven Tyrants Theatre production at Studio 1398 on Thursday, November 24.

Tickets: https://squareup.com/store/seven-tyrants-theatre/

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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