Topdog/Underdog takes place in a room. A one-room apartment, no bathroom or running water, shared by brothers Lincoln and Booth. Younger brother Booth (Travis Sweatte) provides supplies through a gift for the quick steal, but his attempts to improve his lot with three-card monte are ham-handed and loud. It is older brother Lincoln (Darryl DeLoach) who was once the three-card king, and though he also has tried to make a different life for himself through “legitimate” employment, it’s the specter of his old life that hangs over the actions of the play.
This play isn’t a rumination on the difficulty of going straight because there is no “straight” in this world; Lincoln’s job at a seaside arcade is to dress as President Lincoln, in stovepipe hat and whiteface, and get shot. Booth’s hunger for conquering a trick he clearly has no talent for is not truly about the money—hustling three-card monte creates a world where both brothers need each other and no one will up and leave.
Topdog/Underdog is about how the past bucks up like a wave to impact our present. The brothers careen along paths laid out by their collective disappointments and limitations, limitations best seen in the staging of the play. While mentioned, there are no other characters and no outside life. It’s like No Exit, except Sartre’s hell is being trapped in a room with other people; here, the brothers aren’t in hell—this is their life.
The play also explores the limiting nature of dualities; if one’s up, the other’s down. If one’s black, the other’s white. This creates a tension that exists outside of the two men, tapping into our culture’s perception of power as part of a binary system—male/female, older/younger, past/present, rich/poor. Just as their names suggest, Lincoln and Booth are locked into a dance that sets up the other as opposite, forcing one into the role of victor, the other of vanquished.
Considered to be one of the most powerful examinations of modern African-American life, Suzan-Lori Parks’ play was first staged in 2001 at the New York Shakespeare Festival with Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright as Booth and Lincoln. In 2002, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. These are intimidating facts for the production, as is Parks’ work. It is poetic and pseudorealistic, acted as real with an allegorical undercurrent.
This makes Topdog/Underdog a heady challenge for director Aaron Worley and his actors. For the large part, they do a commendable job. Two actors in one room for two hours could easily turn into an experience akin to a mouthful of root canals, except less minty. That’s not the case for this production, and Sweatte and DeLoach fully live in the tiny space, amping up the claustrophobia until it’s ready to snap. Sweatte is best when accessing Booth’s cocksureness, all blustery swagger. A young actor, he’s less effective at listening; there are moments of great tension that are lost in the calculation of the next move. It’s DeLoach as Lincoln who is revelatory. In the program’s notes, DeLoach credits Jeffrey Wright’s original performance as inspiring him, and there’s more than a little of Wright’s cadences in DeLoach’s delivery. But the similarity isn’t a bad thing, as he compares favorably to one of America’s best stage actors. Really. He’s pretty good.
Topdog/Underdog is funny. It is also tragic, exciting and a little weird. It’s one of the most honest plays around and a challenge of piece, one that The Vortex team more than meets.