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Topdog/Underdog

Abandoned by their parents while still kids, African-American brothers Lincoln and Booth, now adults, are once again sharing an apartment and struggling to get by. Startling as this set up is, Suzan-Lori Parks is only getting warmed up in her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog, now receiving its regional premiere by the Shadow Theatre Company.

At once deeply moving and profoundly enigmatic, the story unfolds in a constantly shifting universe where nothing is as simple as it seems—where stakes escalate instantaneously, stories turn on a dime, and history repeats itself.

Photo of Damion Hoover as Booth and Jeffrey Nickelson as Lincoln
Damion Hoover as Booth and
Jeffrey Nickelson as Lincoln
Photo: Jennie MacDonald
In a move that draws on both the absurdity of Beckett and symbolism of Brecht, the playwright unveils that Lincoln has taken a job playing the part of Abraham Lincoln, in an arcade where one customer after another pays to assassinate him. Booth, of course (remember the fellow for whom he is named was from an a family of actors), offers to help him improve his simulated death rattle.

Back and forth it goes, leaving us to wonder who is the top dog and who is the underdog. Lincoln has a job, but his wife has kicked him out of the house. Booth shoplifts and brags about his prowess with the ladies. It's Booth's apartment, but it's Lincoln who pays the rent and holds the secrets to Three Card Monty that Booth desperately wants.

Beneath these dynamics, though, is the love between two brothers who need each other to survive, and Jeffrey Nickelson, as Lincoln, and Damion Hoover, as Booth, make it clear that, whatever else may come between them in their dog eat dog world, they do share this bond.

Sometimes surrogate father, sometimes older brother, Jeffrey Nickelson's Lincoln is the steady drumbeat at the heart of the story. His easy going demeanor and innate gravity allows him to absorb not only the daily ignominity of his job, but the constant challenges of his needy younger brother.

High strung with a hair trigger, Damion Hoover's Booth is electrifying. He may secretly admire his older brother, but he is loath to show it, choosing instead to trash him and put on airs to cover his own shortcomings.

Together, Nickelson and Hoover are bottled lightning, setting off continuous rounds of deep-seated emotional thunder from beginning to end, alternately spilling their guts, sharing fond memories, and scamming one another.

Director Hugo Jon Sayles magnifies the intensity of the drama by cultivating a light touch whenever possible, culminating in a hilariously cheoreographed segment where Booth unloads a mountain of shoplifted goods while strutting to James Brown's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag."

In the end though, left to ponder the familial dysfunction that leads to certain tragedy, we are forced by the playwright's choices to consider the dynamics of race relations in the United States going back to Lincoln's assassination and, further, to the nature of slavery itself, its legal basis in colonial and independent America, and, despite a change in these laws, the continuing official denial over the ramifications of this policy.

Shadow Theatre Company's regional premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks Topdog/Underdog runs through July 2nd. 303-837-9355.

Bob Bows

 

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