By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
through May 19 at Everyman Theatre
Coming into a play like Topdog/Underdog, you expect a certain degree of symbolism. After all, it centers around two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Improbably, Lincoln works at an arcade, where he dons whiteface to portray the historic Lincoln for funseekers who line up to take a turn pretending to assassinate him.
In the hands of a lesser playwright, such a setup could result in a ham-handed allegory about the legacy of racism. But Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play (becoming the first African-American woman to do so), has written a richer, more layered story.
Lincoln and Booth share a squalid one-room apartment, and while Lincoln clings to the job he simultaneously hates and is desperately afraid to lose, Booth spends his days committing petty theft and imagining a much more successful love life than he actually has. Booth's greatest ambition is to be a successful three-card monte hustler, as Lincoln was before a colleague's violent death scared him off.
Over the course of the play, we gradually learn more about the brothers' parents, who named them as a "joke"-which tells you what kind of parents they were-and how they were forced to deal with harsh realities from a very young age. As a result, the brothers' relationship is one fraught with jealousy, regret, anger, and, in fleeting moments, genuine love and affection. It is their relationship that grounds and centers the work, though there are several subtexts which allow the audience to approach the play in a variety of ways.
Besides the interpersonal dynamics, there is a story about class and race, as the brothers have been cornered, largely by circumstance, into meager, fairly desperate lives with little or no hope of exit beyond hitting it big as a hustler. Booze-or "medicine," as the brothers call it-seems to be the only real escape from their circumstances, and it's only temporary. There are mentions of Lincoln's once more-settled life, married to a woman named Cookie, but even that was destroyed, seemingly, by his inability to transcend the plight bequeathed to him. As the play moves forward, the desperation becomes more pronounced, to the point where a breaking point is inevitable. When that point comes, it is shocking but hardly out of nowhere.
Along the way there are also allusions, obvious and less so, to the historical Lincoln and Booth, as when Lincoln declares the virtue of honesty. As it turns out, Booth's character, always striving to match his brother's talents, reflects John Wilkes Booth's struggle as an actor to match the talent of his own older brother. And Lincoln's skills as a hustler are really just a more crude, street-level reflection of Abraham Lincoln's skills as an orator.
Brotherhood itself is a theme, as well, and there are references to the Biblical brothers Cain and Abel, as when Lincoln and Booth argue over their birthright.
All of this adds up to an intriguing, thoughtful night of theater. The actors, Kenyatta Rogers as Lincoln and Eric Berryman as Booth, both give dynamic, deeply emotive performances. There are moments when the acting-or, possibly, overacting-threatens to take the audience out of the trancelike state it should be in, letting all of these references and elements marinate, and makes us roll our eyes at a line delivered as if it should be accompanied by a rim shot. But having not seen the play performed by other actors-Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright played Booth and Lincoln, respectively, in the show's 2002 Broadway run-it's not entire clear if those moments could be better handled by other actors.
In the Broadway production, the play's setting was "Here and Now," and although this production specifies the setting as "New York City, 2001," "Here and Now" might have been more thought-provoking for a Baltimore audience, especially given the Everyman's new location on the gentrifying west side, just blocks from where real-life Lincolns and Booths are likely to be facing similar struggles and circumstances.
For more information, please visit everymantheatre.org