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.”
This analysis is incisive, but, particularly in Act 1, it also feels abstract: ideas are flying around and there’s a lot of description, but next to nothing happens. Act 2 pushes the ante way, way up and the play becomes much more compelling.
This might be a good time to mention that Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. I’ve been told that, in the US, audience reaction to the work is visceral and intense. It’s dangerous to generalize too much from my personal experience, of course, but I think it’s worth considering that the gap between Topdog/Underdog and me might, to some extent at least, be a function of the differences between American and Canadian culture.
My take is that, in the US, slavery and its aftermath are fundamental to citizens’ understanding of what it means to be American: since the birth of their nation, Americans have been steeped in black-white tensions. Anti-black racism is also a reality in Canada, and it has serious, sometimes deadly consequences. But, as I see things as a West Coast Canadian, our country’s foundational racial scar erupted from the exploitation and abuse of First Nations. I suspect that, in the States, there is more inherent drama in the relationship between the audience and the text of Topdog/Underdog.
It’s worth asking if I’m simply blind, as a white Canadian, to Parks’s exploration of the existential threat to black bodies in the US—if my inability to get more excited about Topdog/Underdog is a failure of imagination. I honestly don’t think it is. Claudia Rankine’s book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyric also articulates what it means to be on the receiving end of anti-black racism in the US and that book changed me. Even to someone who’s not living its context, Citizen: An American Lyric has seismic impact—and, for me at least, that makes it a superior work of art.
To be clear: Topdog/Underdog does contain many riches. At the end of Act 1, for instance, Lincoln, who is on the brink of returning to a dark path, cries out, “God! Help me!” It’s a nauseating moment that reminds us of the helplessness we can feel as hopelessness funnels us towards self-destruction. And, in Act 2, it’s also appropriately sickening when the dynamics become betrayal and counter betrayal as the brothers finally, inevitably, turn on one another. As victims with no way to change the system, how else can they seek status or express their rage?
Like the script, director Dean Paul Gibson’s production gains force as it moves along. On opening night, Luc Roderique came out punching, creating a comically dim but charismatically energetic Booth. In the early going, though, Michael Blake didn’t match him as Lincoln. Blake’s energy was so low that it felt like Roderique was lobbing balls into a void. And, when Lincoln launched into long speeches, Blake gave them so little differentiation that they often fell flat.
Blake found his groove, though, and, by the second act, his Lincoln was flying like a drunken aviator. It was thrilling. And, as Roderique’s performance deepened into tragedy, he never let us lose sight of the abandoned eleven-year-old.
The script isn’t naturalistic: Parks gives her characters soliloquies and the conventions about what they can see and not see in their single room aren’t realistic. Wisely, this production’s designers take advantage of the implicit poetic license. The pattern on the wallpaper in Shizuka Kai’s set is huge and slightly hallucinatory. And there are a couple of beautiful cues in which time passes as lighting designer Itai Erdal sweeps the room with moonlight and sound designer Julie Casselman fills it with jazz.
Ultimately, Topdog/Underdog moved me. But, before that, there were long, blank spaces.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. An Arts Club Theatre production on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on January 24. Continues until February 11.
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