By John Glore
“Watch me close” means “I’m going to do everything I can to trick you, to hustle you, to take what’s yours, to gain the upper hand.” The two men in Topdog/Underdog—African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth—need to be watched closely because they have dedicated their lives to various forms of hustling. They had no choice. Abandoned at an early age by both parents, they’ve had to fend for themselves and do whatever was necessary to survive in a world where the establishment cards were stacked against them. So they’ve played their own games by their own rules and they’ve learned never to show their cards or their true colors.
|Soojin Lee's costume rending for Booth.|
Lincoln is the older brother and has looked after Booth ever since they were left on their own. Linc took up “throwing the cards” to put food on the table—and then became so good at it that his bankroll grew exponentially. He might still be hustling people on the street corner, but the murder of his closest friend and confederate some years back convinced him it was time to get out of the game. Since then he’s taken a legit job impersonating Abraham Lincoln—in beard, topcoat, stovepipe hat and whiteface—at an arcade where people pay to play the role of John Wilkes Booth in a reenactment of the Ford’s Theatre assassination. The compensation is a pittance compared to what Linc made throwing the cards, but it pays the rent and leaves the two brothers with just enough money for food and liquor.
Booth has no job. He relies on Lincoln to cover his needs, and shoplifts to satisfy his desire for nice clothes and other nonessentials. The two men have settled into a comfortable routine, but Booth isn’t content with their impoverished life. He wants the kind of money he used to see Lincoln throwing around. He wants the respect that kind of money can buy. And he wants a woman—a particular woman by the name of Grace. His pursuit of those desires—and an unexpected turn of events that threatens to rob Lincoln of what’s left of his dignity—leads to a climactic reckoning between the two brothers.
|Soojin Lee's costume rendering for Lincoln.|
Sibling rivalry, after all, is as old as Cain and Abel, and the struggle between one person (or one group of people) for domination over another has driven world history ever since. America’s Civil War was a battle of brother against brother whose final chapter was written in that fateful confrontation in Ford’s Theatre that Linc now re-enacts day after day. While John Wilkes Booth claimed the Confederacy as his cause and his motive for assassination, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that, deep down, he was simply an underdog trying to find some way to become a topdog.
So much history and myth runs through Lincoln and Booth’s veins as they circle one another in the small, ramshackle apartment that is their home and the stage for the struggle between topdog and underdog. Who will come out on top this time? What part will destiny play in the outcome of their game of chance?
Watch them close and see what happens.