This is a wonderful production of an important play that still has a dog in the fight.
Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Billy Porter. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts, Boston, MA, through April 9.
By Ian Thal
Booth (Matthew J. Harris) stands in the middle of his one-bedroom apartment, basically a cube with wainscoting, peeling wallpaper, dingy throw rugs, and a tin ceiling, hunched over an ad hoc table made from two milk crates and a thick cardboard square, rapidly machine gunning through the patter of the centuries-old three-card monte con game – even rehearsing his escape should he catch sight of the police.
The door opens and a tall figure in a stove-pipe hat, waistcoat, white-face makeup, and a theatrical beard steps in. Booth is frightened; he pulls out a pistol and holds it sideways, assuming the defensive posture he’s seen in contemporary gangster films. The caricature turns out to be his elder brother, Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a former card-shark who quit after his shill was shot dead in a con scheme gone wrong. He works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade shooting gallery whose customers pay to reenact the sixteenth president’s assassination in Ford’s Theater. The entire set-up sounds dodgy to anyone who has worked on a production in which blanks are fired on stage, but it’s the first “honest job” he’s ever had. His wife kicked him out, so Lincoln’s been sleeping on his younger brother’s recliner.
The good news is that Suzan-Lori Parks’ melding of comedy and tragedy still packs a punch, sixteen years after its 2001 premiere. Granted, the play’s “present” is no longer our own web-oriented era. The brothers rely on a corner payphone; they still obtain their pornography via glossy magazines stashed under their mattress; and they only have to pay $400 a month to rent their place. (Lincoln is the one that pays the rent – Booth seems to have no income beyond what he can shoplift.) What remains up-to-date is the musicality of the dramatist’s language, the way she layers image upon image, constructing allegories within allegories that viscerally connect with harsh political realities, such as poverty and racism, without forsaking personal sensations, including lust, hunger, drunkenness, and anger. Yes, the story is filled with Chekhov’s infamous guns (the kind that once seen must inevitably go off), so there’s nothing particularly surprising about the ending. But Parks’ skillful writing is continually exciting.
Both Harris and Henderson are eye-catching competitive dynamos. They are so good at slip-sliding slight-of-hand that you end up feeling that — given all the hustling, grifting, and card-sharking going on — you are missing something good if you concentrate too long on one of them. Harrison, as Booth, is the more frenetic of the two, his flashy movements sudden and swift, often recalling the pop-and-lock dance style. Henderson, in contrast, imbues his Lincoln with a relaxed (though often intoxicated) grace and dignity that no doubt flimflammed many an innocent mark over time. No choreographer is credited in the HTC program, so one presumes that the dances (the most entertaining an extended solo in which Booth unloads the haul from his latest heist) were devised via a collaboration between the actors and director Billy Porter (whose previous experience of playing Booth in a 2004 production is reflected in his respect for the text and top-notch work with the actors).
Of course, the endless repetition of Lincoln’s assassination carries contradictory resonances. He is the president associated with the end of chattel slavery in the United States, so his assassination represented the end of hope for full equality for many African-Americans (like the two brothers). Yet his tragic demise (and its elevation into martyrdom) triggers anger at the injustice of historical memory, resentment that the actions of a white president has overwhelmed the struggles made by African-Americans to liberate themselves. (The recent Trump-inspired kerfuffle over Frederick Douglass is fresh evidence of this enduring conflict.)
For Parks, the assassination of Lincoln is a wound that has never healed. Acts of post-traumatic repetition dramatize the cycle of healing and re-injury that operate on both personal and political levels. Lincoln and Booth were abandoned by their mother at the ages of 14 and 9 and then, two years later, by their father. Both parents involved their sons in their multiple infidelities and each set the brothers against each other, even though they had to rely on one another for survival. The men have never been able to venture beyond the economic margins – they’ve never established a family, never finished their education, and have been barred entry to the working class. The model their parents gave them (of problems unsolved, of lives unfinished) has even left them unable to create trustworthy relationships with the women, who are much talked about but never appear.
They have necessarily relied on one another all their lives, but their fates were sealed the moment their parents named them in such a yin/yang fashion. Booth tries to avoid his destiny by adopting a new name – ironically, the only moniker that suggests itself is “Three-Card,” the very con in which his brother is the unquestionable topdog. Indeed, once we see Lincoln drawn back into the game, it becomes clear that Booth is but a bombastic imitator of his brother. Booth thinks his fast hands and showmanship are equal to Lincoln’s nimble talent for thinking his way to victory by reading his mark expertly. He is an underdog who doesn’t understand that underdogs don’t win unless the shark allows it. To believe otherwise is the hubris of the permanently defeated.
Clint Ramos’ design for the apartment Lincoln and Booth share is extraordinary in its architectural details, deftly playing with perspective. But the HTC’s choice to stage this two-hander at the BU Theatre’s large proscenium stage means that half the playing area is taken up by large wooden beams placed at weird angles that serve no purpose beyond taking up space. (The HTC has the strange habit of often ignoring half its performance space – one can’t help but wonder if this script would have been even more powerful if it has been produced in a smaller auditorium.) Lighting designer Driscoll Otto does wonderfully expressionistic work with the actors’ shadows and paints subtle hues, especially with the sunlight and streetlights that stream through the apartment’s window. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design includes a danceable mixtape of funk and hip-hop (though some audience members might feel the constant use of the “n-word” is a bit gratuitous, even though it reflects the brothers’ self-hatred).
The only missteps in terms of the light and sound are their condescending overuse in later scenes, which tells audience members that the designers don’t trust Park’s words and the actors’ strong performances to tell the story. And, of course, they should — this is a wonderful production of an important play that still has a dog in the fight.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report