Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog is a work of social relevance—a strongly worded, cleverly crafted and often poignant meditation on matters that transcend its African American milieu. Nevertheless, its blackness, as expressed through its two male characters, gives the play bite and ultimately helps deliver its sense of tragedy. Thanks to strong performances in those two lead roles, Destiny Theatre Experience's current production provides a compelling look into the complexities of brotherly relations and the effects of poverty and parental neglect.
Parks has enjoyed a multifaceted writing career, including film scripts and fiction, but the theater has been home to her most important work. Two plays, In the Blood (1999) and Fucking A (2000)—the latter an update of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter—gained her serious attention. Then Topdog/Underdog won her a Pulitzer in 2002.
The setting is a seedy boardinghouse of unknown location, though various clues suggest a place very much like Atlantic City. Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, share cramped living quarters, Lincoln having moved in since his marriage ended.
The brothers, we learn, were abandoned while teenagers by their parents (first mom left, then dad), and now find themselves at yet another crossroad, each struggling to determine his own uncertain future.
Lincoln has settled into a low-paying but steady job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade, dealing with tourists who pay to "assassinate" him with a cap gun while he endures "the smell of the ocean, cotton candy and rat shit." Little brother Booth is unemployed, nurtures a halting relationship with a lady named Grace, and dreams of gaining proficiency as a three-card monte hustler, though he fails to exhibit the necessary sleight-of-hand skills that his big brother once demonstrated in his previously crooked life.
A verbal dance of fraternal affection and competition ensues. The former is captured with subtlety in Parks' characterizations, and anyone with a close sibling will recognize the connection that the brothers share via familiar, good-natured barbs and the occasional celebrations amid their squalor. ("We can afford to get laid!" says Booth, when Lincoln arrives with his paycheck.)
Yet there are harsher dynamics here as well, and various pathetic revelations slowly eat away at the brothers' camaraderie, leading them into painful recollections and accusations involving women, sexuality, manliness and, most of all, the trauma of their parents' psychological abuse of so many years before.
The playwright spares no strong language in communicating this ultimately gloomy tale. Booth calls Lincoln a "limp-dick Uncle Tom." Meanwhile, Lincoln taunts his brother about his affinity for porn, and also reads him the riot act about facing unpleasant truths, in particular the virtues of "a regular job and a weekly paycheck" vs. the hustling life Booth misguidedly sees for himself.
Fortunately, Destiny Theatre Experience's production features two actors, Rashad Rayford and Shawn Whitsell, who—having first played these parts in a brief mounting last fall—clearly have a firm grasp on the challenging material. Rayford, in particular, wrings consistent power out of his words throughout, whether he's explaining his death fantasies or reciting the Act 1 closing speech, in which he evokes his swagger as a former con man: "I was the shit and they was the fools...back in the day." He also effectively balances genuine humor and brotherly love with sad memories, such as his narration of an episode in which he accompanied his father on a visit to a hooker.
Whitsell enacts the role of the deluded Booth—originally portrayed in New York by Don Cheadle, then by Mos Def—and he's strongest when relating his character's hollow bravado, then finishing off the show's climactic scene with haunting cries of desperation.
There's too much stationary speechifying in portions of Act 1, and director John Wiggins occasionally misses opportunities to shape the actors' interplay with an eye toward dramatic movement that might enhance Parks' sharp-edged dialogue. That said, the staging is generally pretty consistent, and the inherent tension in the Booth/Lincoln relationship continually leads the audience into levels of new understanding.
The set design goes uncredited. It is appropriately low-rent, but sometimes even shabbiness can stand a more professional-looking framework. Chalk it up to a limited budget.
Most importantly, the play is strong, and the performances, if not perfect, are always passionate.
Where kids matter Nashville Children's Theatre recently announced its 2008-09 lineup, and, for its first full season in the renovated complex at 25 Middleton St., the company is offering a rather ambitious schedule of six plays, running from early October to late June. Among the projected highlights are the season opener Frankenstein (Oct. 10-Nov. 1), adapted by Nick DeMartino from the classic Mary Shelley novel (ages 10 and up); Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Nov. 18-Jan. 20); the return of Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse (March 10-April 9 & June 5-27), a huge hit at NCT in 2003; and Still Life With Iris (April 28-May 17), written by Steven Dietz, co-author of the recent NCT crowd-pleaser Go, Dog. Go! Other works on the schedule are The Giver (Feb. 6-21), based on Lois Lowry's Newbery Medal-winning novel, and The Fisherman and His Wife (presented on four Saturdays in June). For more information, visit nashvillechildrenstheatre.org.
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