Review of Topdog/Underdog, Collective Consciousness Theatre
Two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln, one Booth—their father’s “idea of a joke”—live a precarious existence in the urban underclass. Lincoln—or Link—was once “the be-all and end-all” in the street hustle known as “three-card Monte,” now he has a regular “job with benefits” working in an arcade. His assignment? Dress up like Abraham Lincoln—including white face—and let customers shoot at him with blanks. Meanwhile, younger brother Booth—or, as he wants to be known now, “Three Card”—aspires to his brother’s former status as a hustling legend. Then there’s Grace, the woman whom he claims can’t get enough of him and is hot to be his wife. That would put an end to the brothers sharing Booth’s apartment, an uneasy arrangement that is the setting for Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, now playing at Collective Consciousness Theatre, directed by Dexter J. Singleton.
The room in which all the action takes place, with its paneling, cracked plaster, single bed and armchair, has the vibe of a place just barely suitable. The bathroom is down the hall and, when we meet the two brothers, they have no phone service. They’re scraping by, barely, and the main tension is that Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) once made real money on the street with the cards; Booth (Tenisi Davis) sees that skill as his ticket to better times. Otherwise, he seems to make his way by “boosting” stuff from department stores. The two pride themselves on their fast hands, but Lincoln insists he’s “off the cards.” The killing of a former accomplice makes him leery of that way of life. He resists his brother’s urges to teach him the secrets of successful three-card manipulation.
Parks’ play—in two Acts with an intermission—takes its time getting to what seems a foregone conclusion, once we see that Booth is packing “heat” (a gun he brandishes early in the play). In keeping with the old Chekhovian dictum that a gun shown on stage in Act One must go off in the final Act, Parks leads us there through revealing dialogue and the kind of loose banter that antagonistic brothers can easily get into and out of. The drama is in watching how these hustlers keep trying to hustle a little more dignity and respect from life.
In the early going, Booth seems a comical figure, with his brags about his girlfriend and his generally jive nature. Davis plays him as a mercurial type, moody and changeable. He’s often irked at being the “little brother” and feels a bit put upon by his hospitality to Lincoln. He wants something from his older brother and the question is: will he get it? As the play rolls along, with Booth’s hopes and plans, and, particularly, his memories of their mother, becoming clearer, Booth gains in stature if only through pathos. He never seems quite as bad as maybe he really is, or wants to be.
As Lincoln, Terrence Riggins is a great asset of this production and a major reason not to miss it. Lincoln is a plum role and Riggins inhabits him with a graciousness that makes the man easy to like. He drinks a lot and often has his guard down. What’s more, other than a place to stay and some vicarious thrills through his bro’s success with “amazing Grace,” Lincoln isn’t after anything. He has reached a place of stasis, contented so long as he can keep his easy job at the arcade. Much of the play’s forward movement is watching what finally stirs this reticent character from the lair where his former king of the streets persona has gone to hide.
Riggins lets us watch it and it’s a fascinating arc. Lincoln suffers his younger brother’s jibes with patience, and is often reflective. There are many amusing exchanges between them—such as Booth trying to coach Lincoln to make his death as Honest Abe more dramatic, or Lincoln calling Booth on his BS about sex with Grace and his reliance on stacks of porn—and, now and then, a window on their abandonment by, first, their mother and then their father.
Parks’ dialogue is richly imagined and a verbal delight, giving us lots of insights into character simply in a turn of phrase. With its intimacy and excellent acting, the show’s main defect at Creative Consciousness is in its pacing. Because of the many three-card monte routines in the play, timing can stretch out a bit, and there’s a pause, with music, that adds length to Act One. It matters because there’s a lot going on in Act Two and we want to be sharp when we get to it.
The street is never far away in perilous times. CCT’s Topdog/Underdog, at Erector Square, effectively conveys how that context creeps into lives like these. The many costume changes—Carol Koumbaros, costumes—bring in more than visual interest as well. We see how much image matters in establishing a con, not least the con we call theater.
Topdog/Underdog looks at what those title terms mean—in family terms, social terms, and in terms of history, race, and economic standing. We understand that, in any kind of antagonistic struggle, “top” and “under” can switch quickly. In a sense, these brothers are always wrestling, sometimes it’s in play and sometimes it’s in earnest. Dexter J. Singleton’s cast and production keeps a firm grasp on which is which, letting us see the now up, now down progress of a contemporary inseparable duo, charged like Cain and Abel—or Lincoln and Booth—with a harsh fate.
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton
Stage Manager: Brionna Ingraham; Assistant Stage Manager: Eddie Chase; Set Designer: David Sepulveda; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Costume Designer: Carol Koumbaros; Production Manager: Jenny Nelson
Cast: Tenisi Davis, Terrence Riggins
Collective Consciousness Theatre
Erector Square, Building 6
319 Peck Street
November 2-19, 2017