- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

Suzan-Lori Parks’ plays have always had poetry, a peculiar, stones-skipping-across-a-pond rhythm that has more to do with the sound of words bouncing off one another than literal meaning.

Her use of language puts you in mind of James Joyce or Gertrude Stein with its use of tones, vowel sounds and internal rhymes to create a language that is eccentric and emotive.

Her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Topdog/Underdog,” has both poetry and music. It shimmers with the kinetic riffs of jazz and the hard-times howl of the blues.

Miss Parks’ works —”Venus,” “The America Play,” “In the Blood” come to mind — have always been alluringly original and fiercely quixotic. She has a language and a structure all her own.

Here, she tackles the age-old Cain and Abel story and gives this classic tale a raw, bruising immediacy.

We know that one of the brothers in “Topdog/Underdog” is going to die from the get-go, but that knowledge doesn’t keep us from the edge of our seat.

The plot impetus of two brothers bound by sibling rivalry, jealousy, love, loyalty and parental abandonment may make you think of the plays “Orphans,” “True West” and “Blood Knot,” but “Topdog” feels new, its emotional territory unsurveyed.

The setting is a low-down room in a boarding house, barely furnished with a saggy bed, an easy chair and a couple of milk crates. Booth (Jahi Kearse), the younger brother, rents the place, although his older sibling Lincoln (Thomas W. Jones II) foots the bills.

The two are uneasy, if entirely dependent, roommates.

Booth is a small-time shoplifter, who “boosts” everything he needs to get by. His baggy attire is a portable warehouse of clothes, shoes, housewares, magazines and other necessities. In Act One, Booth does a virtuoso jitterbug around the apartment, shedding layers of suit jackets, pants, belts, ties and other accessories for the sharp-dressed man.

Otherwise, Booth sprawls on the bed, “scheming and dreaming.” For this bottom-dweller, it is a step up to be a street hustler — he aspires to be a master of three-card monte, just like his brother Lincoln.

Lincoln, on the other hand, has given up curbside card game scams to go “legit.” In Miss Parks’ allegorical world, that means dressing up like Abraham Lincoln (white face, stovepipe hat, beard and all) and being shot at by tourists in an arcade. “It’s honest work, a sit-down job,” he says, a job that allows him the freedom to make up songs and stories in his head all day long.

The tragicomic idea of a black man portraying Lincoln in an arcade shooting gallery has appeared before, in Miss Parks’ “The America Play.” For her, Lincoln is more than a president or a historical figure. Lincoln is a rite of passage in America — he is our great mythology.

“Everything that happens, from 1865 to today, has to pass through that wound,” she has said.

By playing the president, Lincoln gets to be a great man — if only for a few hours in the workaday world.

Over and over again, he re-creates the assassination, that defining moment in America’s racial and social history. The repetition and inevitability of his fate makes you think of Sisyphus (eternally pushing the rock up the hill, only to have it tumble down again) or Prometheus (chained to a rock and having birds pick at his liver forever).

Like Sisyphus and Prometheus, Lincoln has been doomed by the gods — but their punishment makes them the subject of myths, and they become immortal. In “Topdog,” the character of Lincoln carries the weight of oppression and slavery — and the drudgery of it — through the ages.

Another aspect that defines “Topdog” is that Lincoln and Booth’s lives are not only a cycle of poverty and “same old, same old,” but tragically empty. They have too much time on their hands, time spent picking on each other, going on about their childhood, fantasizing and grasping at the scrawny straws life has doled out to them.

Like a canny card player, Miss Parks does not reveal her hand all at once. In the overlong, digression-laden first act, Booth and Lincoln seem like two typical, sparring brothers — they may fight a lot, but when it comes down to it, they love each other, and they are all each other has. It is only gradually that we see how cruel life has been to them.

The memories of a house and two parents in the first act gives way to the reality. They were abandoned by both parents, and their first names hold no significance; instead, it was their father’s idea of a joke.

With a legacy that paltry, it is no wonder Booth feels like a whipped puppy. He is down so low he doesn’t even fully comprehend the latest burn — that his supposed girlfriend, Grace, has been playing him for a fool. It is no wonder this perennial underdog finally bites back. Booth has gotten to the point where his heart can take no more scarring.

Mr. Kearse, who was so commanding as the Player in Round House’s production of “Pippin” last spring, shows a similar musicality and muscularity as Booth.

He plays Booth as a young man with energy to burn but nowhere to expend it. His life of humiliation and disappointment has made him twitchy, full of fake brio and the worst kind of dreamer — one with a grudge.

His foil is Mr. Jones’ lighter performance as Lincoln.

Mr. Jones’ Lincoln is more measured and slick than the hair-trigger Booth. He plays Lincoln as an older man who takes his time, who knows he has the attention of his intended target. Because he’s smarter, Lincoln knows just where the lacerations will hurt the most.

Mr. Jones and Mr. Kearse create such an intimacy that you almost feel reluctant to intrude upon it. But Joy Zinoman’s thrillingly discreet direction draws you into the brothers’ bond and their battle for supremacy. She downplays Miss Parks’ larger themes of mythology and allegory in favor of the relationship between the two characters.

It is the emotion, the rage of Booth and Lincoln that draws you in, and their combined hurt creates a poetry with a rhythm that beats harsh and unending.

***1/2

WHAT: “Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 19

TICKETS: $28 to $35

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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