I had the pleasure of seeing the revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” over Thanksgiving break. Playing at the Golden Theatre through Jan. 15, 2023, the show deals with themes of family dysfunctionality, sibling rivalry, poverty, toxic masculinity and the blurry relationship between past and present. The original production of Parks’ play opened on Broadway in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the first African-American woman to receive the award, according to The New York Times. “Topdog/Underdog” follows a pair of Black brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who are haunted and traumatized by their childhood experience; they were named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a sadistic joke, abandoned by their parents as minors and left $500 each as an inheritance, Booth’s in a nylon stocking. They bicker and revel through their struggles with racism, relationships and money troubles while simultaneously relying on each other to weather these issues. Nonetheless, insecurity draws Booth into the confidence game of three-card monte. This rabbit hole tears apart every seam holding the brothers together and foments the rage, melancholy and mania the two had long suppressed.
“Topdog/Underdog” leverages Lincoln and Booth’s sibling rivalry to incredible effect and features the music of Nipsey Hustle and James Brown, among other musical artists. A two-person play, it spotlights bravura performances by Yahya-Abdul Mateen II (“Watchmen,” “Candyman”) and Corey Hawkins ( “The Walking Dead,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “BlacKkKlansman”), who are charismatic and electrifying throughout. Hawkins’ Lincoln and Mateen’s Booth wind through labyrinthine conversations that devolve through stages of grief, from anecdotes and comedy to the anger and solemnity of bitter, shared trauma. As much as Lincoln and Booth bluster and perform for themselves, parental abandonment deeply scars the two. Booth copes through braggadocio and by embodying hypermasculinity, seeking to be the security he never felt, saying, “I’m a hot man. I ain’t apologizing for it.” Lincoln, meanwhile, trudges forlornly through life with absurd humor, fulfilling a parental role as the older sibling by supplying the pair’s food, rent and pocket money.
Both Lincoln and Booth engage with morbid obsession and depersonalization throughout the narrative. Lincoln works at an arcade where he re-enacts the Abraham Lincoln assassination in costume and whiteface. Though he initially seems impassive about the job, its depersonalizing racial dysphoria and the constant re-enactment of the historical Lincoln assassination become traumatizing. Eventually, however, Lincoln begins to enjoy wearing the costume outside of work, blurring the line between Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln as his historical counterpart subsumes his true identity. Booth, meanwhile, asserts his ego by trying to learn how to “throw” the playing cards in three-card monte fast enough to rip off unsuspecting customers. He loses himself in the pursuit of skill, begging Lincoln to teach him how to throw despite knowing Lincoln quit the hustle after the death of a good friend. Booth, for all his efforts and the emotional compromise of Lincoln, is unable to improve his game, agitated and emasculated to the point of insanity.
In a recent interview with The New York Times, Parks emphasized her intent is to make stories that connect with and create meaning for her audience, stating, “I’m like a bard, I want to sing the songs for the people, and have them remember who they are.” Parks’ portrayal of the Black experience in “Topdog/Underdog” is utterly compelling. Booth’s megalomaniacal search for approval is a deconstruction of the pernicious effects of hustle culture and the competence imperative Black masculinity tropes impose. At the same time, Lincoln’s loss of identity comments on how African Americans are forced to assimilate and suppress their racial identity to fare economically in a hegemonically white society.
Parks’ dense narrative content is brought to life by fantastic acting in this run; Mateen embodies Booth as a kinetic force, always bursting with energy unleashed through crowing, raucous humor, or rage. From the way he moves in jagged steps to the swaggering body language he conveys, Mateen imbues Booth with confidence and vitality and yet also suffuses the role with an underlying emotional vulnerability and barely-contained pain that boils just under the surface. Booth is a dynamic character, weaving between aggressive conviction and an underlying vulnerability and impotence, and the performance is a perfect reflection of that complexity. Similarly, Hawkins’ Lincoln is world-weary and small, carrying himself with hunched shoulders, shuffling steps and a harsh croaking tone that sounds like he has screamed and cried since time immemorial, eventually realizing the futility. Hawkins especially shines with Lincoln’s humor, conveyed through dark, winding anecdotes and reflections on the absurdity of the quotidian that both generates laughs and an uneasy apprehension from the audience. Hawkins also sings and plays guitar in the number “Lincoln’s Blues,” a diegetic elegy brimming with the melancholic blues lineage of institutionally ostracized Black men Parks conjures; and if that wasn’t enough, his card throwing in the three-card monte scenes is legitimately impressive. Hawkins’ crestfallen pathos and low self-esteem mix perfectly with his evident talent on the stage to paint Lincoln as the former top dog, now relegated to underdog status.
Overall, “Topdog/Underdog” is a must-see Broadway show. When Booth and Lincoln alternate coming on stage and playing three-card monte with the audience in an enchanting apostrophe between audience and performer, they throw the cards and shuffle, repeating the mantra, “Watch me close, watch me close now.” I hardly needed any imploration, as it’s a revelation to watch. “Topdog/Underdog” utilizes excellent performances, intense character portrayal and social commentary, all coalescing into an enrapturing play. Whether stricken by laughter or tension, Parks keeps the audience engaged in her dark tale of brotherhood, the Black experience and the horrifying power of collective trauma. I urge you to catch a performance of “Topdog/Underdog”’s revival and experience this play that remains as prescient to today’s cultural context as it was when it was first performed 20 years ago.