Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Cards They've Been Dealt

By John Glore

The first three words in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog are “Watch me close.” You’ll hear those same three words repeated frequently over the course of the play. They’re a recurring motif in the three-card monte chatter that both of the play’s characters rehearse—one of them delivering its cadences with an expertise born of years of successful hustling, the other stumbling awkwardly through the routine in an effort to pick up its moves and its lingo.

“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.
The problem for Lincoln and Booth is that they’re equally capable of conning each other—and themselves. They’ve been playing the game for so long they don’t know how to be real with one another, whatever that means. They have lived together since Lincoln’s marriage fell apart, and their shared life is marked by true brotherly love. But the need to be a topdog—so as not to feel like an underdog—doesn’t go away when they deal with one another.

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.
Topdog/Underdog has many of the trappings of gritty, hyper-real urban drama (mixed with ample amounts of humor), but watch and listen closely and you’ll come to appreciate its poetic dimension and heightened theatricality. Suzan-Lori Parks, who won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Topdog, is a true poet of the theatre. She wields language with a dazzling combination of artistic precision and apparent spontaneity that would make a jazz master envious. Her sense of myth and metaphor and her bold use of a dramatic form with roots in ancient Greek tragedy allow Topdog to transcend its squalid surface reality and acquire a deeper resonance and universality. 

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.

A House Divided

When set designer Shaun Motley (Fences, SCR 2010) began looking for an approach to the scenic design for Topdog/Underdog, he wanted to find a visual equivalent for the psychic fissures that split the world of the play, and for the layers of history that underlie the decaying surface of that world.  That brought to his mind the work of Gordon Matta-Clark.

Shaun Motley's set rendering for Topdog/Underdog.
An artist trained as an architect, Matta-Clark used abandoned houses, buildings and warehouses as the canvas for his best known work in the 1970s. He would take a chainsaw to the walls, floors and ceilings, sometimes literally splitting a building down the middle or cutting gaping holes into its sides. The result, according to an article in The New York Times, “offered potent commentary on both the decay of the American city and the growing sense that the American dream was evaporating.” Yet despite the destructive and deconstructive impulse behind his work, the article observes, Matta-Clark showed an exceptional ability “to extract raw beauty from the dark, decrepit corners of a crumbling city.”

Shaun Motley's set rendering for Topdog/Underdog.
Motley shared Matta-Clark’s work with director Seret Scott, who agreed that it evoked some of the more important metaphorical currents in Suzan-Lori Parks’ play—whose very title is split down the middle by a slash—while also suggesting a deceptively realistic framework for the play’s sly poetic realism. Matta-Clark’s vision seemed a perfect complement to a play that finds raw beauty in something as simple and mercenary as a game of three-card monte—and which uses as its epigraph Ralph Waldo Emerson’s celebration of the divine nature of a weed growing beside a wall.

Matta-Clark’s influence on the set design for SCR’s production will be apparent on the Julianne Argyros Stage, as Lincoln and Booth play out their brotherly cage-match amid Motley’s peeling, cracked walls. Their run-down apartment may look as real as any urban blight, but when the light shines through its fissures, it illuminates the metaphor of a split household, a broken home, a decaying dream.

To learn more about the work of Gordon Matta-Clark:

The New York Times article about a Matta-Clark retrospective
Images of Matta-Clark’s work

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