Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog, playing now at the Cellar Theatre, is the most interesting piece of theater I’ve seen in San Antonio this year. It weaves a postmodern tragedy out of three distinctly American strands of performance: intricate rhythmic language, infused with jazz, the blues, and hip-hop; fascinating character relationships, which are as fraught with competition, failure, and traumatic family memories as those in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun; and a stylized repetition of the interactions among history, identity, race, and performance as they structure the complicated social web we have come to call “America.”
Steven Montalvo’s stage design, simple and poor, is suggestively haunted by influential African-American figures, living and dead. They lurk like ghosts behind the backdrop painting, barely perceptible most of the time. Stage right, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack Obama, and other heroes of black history watch over the brothers. Stage left, 50 Cent, Tupac, and various figures of gangsta rap remind us of the danger and violence bound up in performance.
This haunted apartment is the setting for the story of two African-American brothers down on their luck, one named Lincoln (SkudR Jones), the other named Booth (Montel Hadley) — their long gone father’s sick idea of a joke. They live together in a squalid room and compete over everything from their failed relationships with women to who is the better con artist. Booth (aka 3-Card), the younger, is unemployed, broke, a hustler and a thief, desperate to master 3-Card Monte like his older brother once did. Lincoln has put his hustling days behind him in favor of a “real” job. He now makes his living dressing as a caricature of his namesake, complete with whiteface makeup, frock coat, stovepipe hat, and fake beard. He spends his days at a boardwalk arcade attraction in which tourists pay to pretend they are John Wilkes Booth and shoot him in a pseudo-historical reenactment of the great president’s infamous 1865 assassination in Ford’s Theatre.
Much of the action between the two brothers unfolds in the form of rehearsals for their marginal performance careers. Booth opens the show rehearsing his 3-Card Monte routine, and Lincoln, once he finally succumbs to the cards’ seductive siren song, comes back to his old game to show his little brother how it’s really done: “Lean in close and watch me now: who see thuh black card who see thuh black card I see thuh black card black card thuh winner pick thuh black card that’s thuh winner pick thuh red card that’s thuh loser pick thuh other red card that’s thuh other loser pick thuh black card you pick thuh winner.”
Jones brings off the breathless, nearly hypnotic patter of Lincoln’s con with a verbal dexterity somewhere between old-time auctioneers and hip-hop artists. Hadley’s more awkward, tripping delivery suits his comparative inexperience, his “Underdog” status. As Lincoln continuously repeats the con at a makeshift table, supposedly to help his little brother master the game, he finds himself wanting more than anything else to show his brother up, to reinforce his own “Topdog” status. This competitive quality becomes the structure for the entire play.
Interwoven with their 3-Card Monte rehearsals, Booth tries to “help” his brother play Lincoln better in his boardwalk arcade act so he doesn’t lose his job. In the process of their makeshift rehearsals, Booth repeatedly comes in through the front door, playing the tourist playing Booth, and “shoots” Lincoln, pushing his brother with each repetition to spice up his act: “Hold yr head or something, where I shotcha. Good. And look at me! I am the assassin! I am Booth!!” Booth layers his own identity as jealous brother onto the historical Booth he temporarily portrays, bringing the fake gunshot uncomfortably into the realm of the real: “Come on man this is life and death! Go all out!”
But when Lincoln does go all out, flopping about on the floor, the act becomes too real. As Lincoln points out, that is not what he’s paid for: “They don’t want it looking too real. I’d scare the customers.”
This is where the play touches most deeply on the relationship between performance and history. History, as it becomes ossified into national cultural myths, does not deliver the shock of its traumas; rather, it gives our culture its sense of reality through the distinctly fake and repetitive externals that beautify and ritualize traumatic events. Like Lincoln says: “People are funny about they Lincoln shit. It’s historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”
Topdog/Underdog does show the “raggedy and bloody and screaming” side of “historical shit,” but only in the joints between the brothers’ false language games. The play seems to suggest that Lincoln and Booth are forced into performances that commodify and reduce them, that package them neatly and inoffensively into stereotypes.
Although much more approachable than Parks’s more experimental works such as Venus and The America Play, Topdog /Underdog is in some ways even more demanding for actors, in that it requires a striking collision between truth and falseness; it needs both a realistic portrayal of the competition between two brothers and the artifice of their respective versions of minstrel performance by which they con everyone, including each other. Jones’s powerful, grounded Lincoln and Hadley’s false, alienated Booth rise to the occasion, and Vincent Toro’s able direction creates a tense, funny, moving, and frightening piece that cuts straight to the heart of what makes American identity so weird. Jones’s portrayal suggests something true and earthbound beneath Lincoln’s performances, a frank confrontation with his own failures as a man. His long solo as he is seduced back to the cards is nuanced, richly layered, and surprising. Hadley deftly handles the falsity of Booth’s language but lacks Jones’s subtlety and connection to a deeper source of real objectives. His performance comparatively flits around on a surface level, but then again so does his character, Booth.
The fact that Abraham Lincoln was shot in a theater while watching a play, and that the character Lincoln now makes his living turning that trauma into a sideshow, is one of the many ways the piece explores the nature of performance and its oppressive history in mediating race and power relations. Performance itself becomes the subject of the play, the hinge between history and identity. From minstrel shows performed in blackface to gangsta rap’s commodification by white suburbia, performance has played a crucial role in defining the ways black and white Americans have interacted and perceived one another. As you watch the Cellar Theater’s overwhelmingly white audience observing this very black performance, the disturbing qualities of spectatorship (often repressed by pleasantries and “jazz hands”) comes to the fore.
Parks structures her plays around a concept she calls “rep and rev,” repetition and revision. Like jazz, Parks’s theater repeats and revises the myths and codes of history, riffing on themes, replaying them again and again with variations. This verbal and mental play takes place not only in characters’ identity but also in their intricate rhythmic language games. American history is not only the narrative in high-school textbooks (written by the victors); it also, on a much more fundamental level, includes the gestural and verbal minutia of everyday identity games as we riff, with variations, on those that came before us. •
Through May 9
The Cellar Theater