Sunday, August 29, 2010

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

By Joe Straw 

Riding on a bus in the late seventies going west on Hollywood Boulevard I came upon a group of African Americans in the back throwing cards.   The man throwing wore a bandana around his head.  He was a smooth talker with a rough exterior.  His multiple skin pustules were something not to notice as all eyes were inexplicitly forced to focus on the throwing of the cards.    

He was throwing the cards like there was no tomorrow and making me dizzy, but oddly enough he kept losing.  He pulled out a wad of money, paid out, and told the winning guy with the gold tooth to leave.  It was very fast pace, dangerous, funny, and mesmerizing.

Topdog/Underdog written by Suzan-Lori Parks winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama is an extremely fascinating play.  This journey will take you to the mountaintop and then unsuspectingly throw you off the overhang without hesitation against the jagged rocks below. Topdog/Underdog is riveting play from the opening moment to the end. 

Which is not to say this production, directed by James Reynolds and produced by Lissa Reynolds is riveting, it isn’t just yet.   By all accounts the bugs are still being worked out.  But this production at the Fremont Centre Theatre in South Pasadena has some wonderful moments nevertheless. 

The play opens in a seedy furnished rooming house room as Booth (Stephen Rider) throws the cards.  He is clumsy in his attempts to perfect his technique but he continues to practice.

“Watch me close watch me close now: who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red card?”  -Booth

As Booth practices, Lincoln (Jed Reynolds) his brother enters after a long day of work in his Abraham Lincoln costume: complete with stovetop hat, white face and jacket. Booth pulls his gun and…


Take a moment to realize this is the most important moment of the play and if this doesn’t work there is an incredible amount of catch up work to be done. This is the moment that captures the essence of the play.  It establishes who is topdog and who is underdog.   It tells us which brother is in control and which brother has to take control and by what means each is willing to go.

So this moment did not quite work and now there’s some catching up to do.

Booth tells Lincoln to take off the costume, white face and stove top hat because he’s in love with Grace and…

“She sees you in that getup its gonna reflect bad on me.” - Booth  

And with these two, it’s always a power struggle.  They even battle to who’s going to walk to the other end of the room and bring the food to the table.

Lincoln thinks he’s got a respectable job playing Abraham Lincoln.  His job has him sitting in a chair while tourists shoot him.  (Can anybody think of a better job?)

Dressing up like some crackerass white man, some dead president and letting people shoot at you sounds like a hustle to me.  - Booth

But when Friday rolls around Lincoln brings home “the bacon”. 

“Oh Lordamighty Ima faint, Pa!  Get me muh med-sin!”Booth


Lincoln and Booth play this game about the money.  It is an African American stereotypical dialogue you might hear in Blazing Saddles or a minstrel show and it does a couple of things, it strengthens their relationship and it is a reason why both of them can cohabitate in the dingy run down flat. Like it or not they need each other because they are all they got.

Sadly, this is not what we got.  (More catch up.)

In his quest to get Lincoln throwing the cards again, Booth steals a complete wardrobe for Lincoln: expensive suite, shoes, shirt and tie to make him look good.  And although Lincoln is grateful he wants the other tie Booth is wearing and gets it.  

But Booth, in order to become topdog, is constantly throwing his weight around when they are together and he emphasizes that it’s his gun, his apartment, and his girlfriend when it comes to hanging out in his apartment. 

And then tragedy befalls them when Lincoln looses his job.  This forces Lincoln to start throwing the cards again. But there is a problem here Lincoln believes someone will die when he starts throwing the cards and the guilt of getting someone killed plays on his emotions.

With nothing to lose, against his better judgment, Lincoln decides to start throwing the cards again. And with that idea starts to teach Booth the tricks of the trade. 

“You see what Im doing? Don’t look at my hands, man, look at my eyes.  Know what is and know what aint.”Lincoln 

Still, this is a quest for coming out on top.  Who is the topdog?  And who is the underdog?  Both brothers battle it out in a never-ending quest for supremacy until the tragic end.   The elements in this play are there, the moments are not. In this performance the actors got lost and backtracked.  Something actors try not to do when there are paying customers.  The point is to relax, concentrate and stay in the moment.

Rider as Booth is compelling. This is a demanding role that requires a few more levels to the emotional and physical commitment to the character. Silently and sub textually his character is pushed beyond limits.  It is a cancerous growth that culminates in a tragic release.  We as audience members know what he wants what we are not able to see is the conflict in his character that drives his being.  We need to be able to see the insurmountable loses that drives him to do what he ends up doing.

Reynolds as Lincoln presents a very morose picture. Although he has lost everything in his life, his objective seems out of place and confusing. If his objective was to stay at the flat and get drunk, he achieved that objective. But what purpose does that serve? What if his objective was to fleece his brother out of his $500.00 inheritance?  Would that paint a different picture? It seems to fit an underlying truth as money coming to Lincoln is spent at the local bar without Booth, or even his last week’s paycheck, which seems to have disappeared without Booth receiving any benefits.

A fascinating moment happened at the curtain call.  Both actors rose from the floor Reynolds held Rider in his arms, as Reynolds was deeply concerned at Rider’s emotional state of being.  The moment was poignant and endearing but both actors need to find those moments on stage during the performance if this dream is to be fully realized. 

James Reynolds, the director, does a fascinating job in bringing out the finesse of the card game.   It is exciting to watch and glorious in execution.  His needs are in the stronger execution of the pauses, suggested in the play, which are not realized here.  The pauses have a great sub textual meaning, and they need emphasis in order to advance the action. Also, things seemed to be half heartedly done.  The screen in the middle of the apartment did not appear to separate the brothers.  If you’re going to have it there, use it to its full advantage.

Through September 18, 2010

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