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Vol. LXI, No. 42
 
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
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Music/Theater

(Photo courtesy of TopdogUnderdog Press Photos)

BROTHERS: Lincoln (Justin Williams, left) and Booth (Zennen Clifton, right) square off over the three-card monte table, as they prowl the terrains of power, identity, and brotherhood in Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog,” currently playing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus.

“Topdog/Underdog,” by Suzan-Lori Parks, Pits Brother v. Brother; Theatre Intime, Black Arts Company Stage Award-Winning Drama

Donald Gilpin

A contemporary, urban throwback to the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, Topdog/Underdog is the story of two African-American brothers, inauspiciously named Lincoln and Booth. They are haunted by their pasts and by their obsessions with the hustle game of three-card monte.

Lincoln and Booth share one squalid room, lit by a single dangling light bulb and starkly furnished with a single bed, a stool, a reclining chair, and an assortment of milk crates to create a makeshift table.

Older brother Lincoln, in his late thirties, has given up card-playing and taken on a job in an arcade where he portrays Abraham Lincoln, as customers re-enact, with blank guns, the assassination of Lincoln. Day after day he paints his face white, dons his black suit, fake black beard and stovepipe hat and goes to work, under the constant threat of being replaced by a wax dummy — “It’s a sit-down job with benefits. I don’t want to get fired.” Lincoln, recently abandoned by his wife, is living temporarily with his younger brother.

Booth, who insists being called “three-card,” constantly practices his card routine, eager to emulate his brother’s past success and make it as a three-card monte hustler. In the meantime Booth brings home the rewards of his shoplifting skills; vainly tries to make his way with the ladies, one “amazing” Grace in particular; and urges his brother to resume his hustling and team up with him to get rich.

Ms. Parks’ darkly comical, two-character play, which starred Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, with George Wolfe directing, in its first incarnation in New York City in 2001, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2002.

“Topdog/Underdog” plays October 18-20 at 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. For information visit www.theaterintime.org.

The current Theatre Intime/ Black Arts Company production, directed by Princeton University junior Osei Kwakye and starring junior Justin Williams and senior Zennen Clifton, powerfully delivers the essence of this brother-to-brother drama, though it does not quite rise to the levels of poetry, humor, and powerful characterization achieved in the original.

As Booth’s would-be romance with Grace sours and Lincoln confronts the impending replacement of his arcade performance with a wax dummy, Lincoln, like an addict with his drugs, cannot keep his hands away from the cards. He returns to the three-card monte hustle. Booth becomes increasingly restless. Less capable with the cards than Lincoln, without romantic or job prospects, Booth can no longer even pretend to be top dog. He hopes in vain to achieve success and money from the card hustle, but his only identity comes from his odd shoplifting acquisitions and his collection of x-rated magazines stashed under his bed.

Frustration and danger rise as the characters’ personal and financial lives deteriorate. Calling to memory the two South African brothers in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, the clashing brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West, and the two brothers in Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size (at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre last season), the rivalry between brothers rings true and resonates here. Lincoln and Booth navigate the emotions and power shifts of their affections and animosities towards each other as they explore their troubled pasts (abandoned by mother and father at an early age), their bleak present status, and their dreams of a prosperous future.

Mr. Clifton and Mr. Williams work skillfully together, keeping the audience’s attention and presenting a deep study in contrasts. Mr. Clifton’s Booth is appropriately restless, outspoken, irreverent and funny, both cocky and insecure. Mr. Williams’ Lincoln fits readily into the older brother role: more stolid, understated, introverted, formal. The stretch for these undergraduate actors is a significant one — in terms of age (about fifteen years) and in terms of socio-economics, where Ms. Parks’ characters are clearly on society’s bottom rung. The latter stretch is more difficult, but Mr. Clifton and Mr. Williams are strong, focused, and mostly credible throughout.

Mr. Kwakye has directed with taste and intelligence, keeping the focus, as it should be, on the two brothers and their growing conflict, except for two or three moments of surrealistic lighting and obtrusive background music that briefly undermine the realism and intensity. The expert hand of Allen Grimm, professional set and lighting designer and technical director for Princeton Summer Theater 2007, is evident in the top-notch production values that help to create the dark, fetid world of this play.

Topdog/Underdog — humorous, grim, intense, and troubling — is a significant challenge for Intime and the Black Arts Company. They provide here an enthralling production of an important work by a major contemporary American playwright. It’s an exciting theatrical experience.

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