“Watch me close.”
Both characters—two brothers, portentously named Lincoln and Booth—give us those instructions during the course of Suzan Lori-Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, and it’s good advice. Director Malika Oyetimein cleverly has both characters bend the fourth wall on that line, and in the space that is Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5, we’re instantly aware that we don’t have a choice—the theatre space is as small and cramped as the “third world” barely furnished room that the two brothers share (brilliantly realized in Britt Plunkett’s set design). Our attention is not just engaged—it is seized and trapped, and in this case, that is a very good thing. When one of the characters tells you to “watch close,” you do, and you should.
Watch Kash Goins closely as the older brother, Lincoln; watch his heavy, world-weary entrances at the end of a long day at an unlikely job: impersonating Abraham Lincoln in an arcade attraction that invites anyone with ready cash to “assassinate” the president with a cap gun. Then watch him light up, shedding years of troubles and hard living as he manipulates three cards, accompanied by his own teasing, jiving, poetic patter, in a demonstration of one of the world’s oldest confidence games, three-card monte. Then watch Roderick Slocum, as younger brother Booth, slickly showing off various articles he’s “boosted” (that is, stolen), bobbing and weaving with boyish charm and enthusiasm that can instantly turn violently impulsive. Most especially, watch Goins and Slocum together as they complete each others’ thoughts and push each others’ buttons—a crackerjack comedy team one moment and a heartbreaking duet of misplaced rage and frustration the next. The two are expertly guided by director Oyetimein and just as expertly costumed by Tracy Jones.
And be sure to listen closely to the two of them as well, because Goins and Slocum are two inspired instruments playing Suzan Lori-Parks’ glorious dramatic score. Her script not only encompasses the dramatic arc of two loving and combative brothers, but also constitutes a sharp critique of American history—including the tradition of minstrelsy, here stood on its head through the presence of African-American Lincoln, playing President Lincoln, in whiteface. As the title suggests, the play is also about power and power plays—the shifting balance of power between the two brothers, as well as the “topdogs” and the “underdogs” in our own society. As Lincoln says as he lays down the bottom line of the three-card monte game that his brother Booth thinks he has mastered, the only time the “mark”—the sucker playing the game—wins is when “the man” lets him win, and it’s an image that millions of “underdogs,” by virtue of race and class, will instantly recognize. It’s a lament at least as old as three-card monte itself, still timely in 2001 when TOPDOG/UNDERDOG was first produced, and just as timely over ten years later. We might well wonder if the three-card monte metaphor will ever be out of date.
If the presence of two characters named Lincoln and Booth, one of whom carries a gun, combined with the above-described job of dressing up as the president, seems a bit heavy-handed and too loaded with historical symbols, then it’s a credit not only to Lori-Parks but to the first-class production on display that everything seems as natural and inevitable as the finest stories always are. Or to put it more simply, go see it, and not only see it, but “watch close.”
by Suzan Lori-Parks
Directed by Malika Oyetimein
May 26-June 17, 2012
Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5
825 Walnut Street