3 Cards, 2 Hands, 1 Great Play: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Park is mesmerizing because it is at once so simple and so complex. The play has only two characters, brothers, both black, one named Lincoln and the other named Booth. At ground level, the play is about two brothers, sharing an apartment and a bottle of whiskey, trying to figure out who they are and what matters in the world. And that, of course, is where things get complicated.

Abraham Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth. Our Lincoln works as a Lincoln impersonator, sitting in an arcade and getting “shot” at for amusement. Booth too has a gun, a real one. He’s also good at shoplifting and never had a “real” job. The Lincoln/Booth symbolism isn’t subtle but it works, magnifying the stakes and the consequences beyond the everyday realism of the play. The ending is so obvious as to be practically pre-ordained, but I honestly didn’t realize where the action was going until it happened. Parks’ writing is masterful: subtle and big and loud and ambitious all at once.

Parks scaffolds the play with the Lincoln and Booth symbolism, but the meat on those bones is 3-Card Monte, a street hustle. Lincoln used to throw the cards, but now has a real job “with benefits.” Booth wants to learn how. For both, the appeal of 3-card is the ability to make a lot of money quickly. But it goes deeper than that too. When the dealer wins in 3-card, they’re victorious by design and the design has been to fool the other person. It’s schadenfreude; success defined by raising oneself up by pushing another down. 3-card also represents the ability to drink for fun (not just as “med-sin”), and, especially, to be attractive to women. This is the crux of the play, and the great irony of modern America: that a steady job should grant you all of these things – fun, women, success, a good life – but it doesn’t.

Topdog/Underdog is complicated because Parks is writing about the great American myths (false myths, especially for Black men, the play suggests) of posterity and pulling up oneself by one’s boot straps, but those ideas are always just in the shadows, never mentioned explicitly. As Lincoln and Booth’s relationship unfolds to its dramatic, tragic, pre-ordained end, Parks tells a story that is at once about these two specific characters and about the political and social and economic forces that have made them who they are.

I would jump at the chance to see this play performed. I think there’s no higher praise than that.

Up next: Ariel by Sylvia Plath, the Restored Edition
Why? Poetry is fun!

Also: I just turned in my final project for The Outsiders to Ms. Holmes! A post about my experience reading that novel coming soon, too.

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