Twenty years after it made a Pulitzer-winner out of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog is being introduced to a new generation of Broadway-goers, losing none of its relevance nor timeliness in the two-decade gap since its premiere.
Directed by the legendary Kenny Leon, Broadway veteran Corey Hawkins and newcomer Yahya Abdul-Mateen II effortlessly deliver the pain and hilarity of this story of love and strife between two brothers, thrust together to work through the worst of circumstances and locked in a fruitless rivalry.
Lincoln (Hawkins) and Booth (Mateen), given their names as a joke by their father, share a cramped studio apartment and scrape by as best they can with meager earnings. Their surroundings metaphorize their relationship – close to the point of discomfort, messy, and packed with remnants of their collective past.
Comical yet thought-provoking, this production tackles themes of race, class, poverty, resentment, love, loss, abandonment, violence, and manhood through the lens of two brothers, forced to survive alone from a very young age. Abandoned by their mother and father in their teen years, each brother is left with a meager “inheritance” from each parent and given the directive to keep the money a secret from the other, setting them up for a lifetime of distrust between them.
Each attempt to claw their way out of the dregs of urban poverty and into a slice of the “American dream” slowly guides them to the realization that said dream wasn’t quite crafted with men like them in mind.
Formerly a street hustler, famed for being undefeated in three-card monte, Lincoln moves in with his brother while down on his luck, having been left by his wife Cookie and put out of their home. He has secured a straight job at a local arcade, perhaps t00-fittingly posing as Abraham Lincoln for a shooter simulation game. It’s a job he’s holding on to by a thin thread, as the company is considering using a prop dummy instead of paying a salary to a hired actor.
Booth, now a booster and three-card hustler himself (living in his brother’s shadow, despite being his current lifeline), is most focused on wooing an ex-girlfriend named Grace with the hopes of proposing marriage.
Through action revealed exclusively by one-on-one conversation, each brother discovers just how lofty these dreams are for each of them, culminating in a conversation that dredges up a lifetime of love and resentment between the two of them and ultimately cements each of their futures.
Parks’ colorful text is necessarily heavy-handed, exemplifying the brash braggadocio and positioning between Black men from rough upbringings and less fortunate circumstances determined to carve out their place in the world and establish respect in a society that casts them aside. Following the old adage of Chekhov’s gun to a quite literal end, the inevitability of the play’s end doesn’t diminish its shock value and leads the audience to re-evaluate every scene that precluded it.
It’s a testament to the guidance of Leon and the mastery of both Hawkins and Mateen, particularly the undeniable chemistry between them. Effortlessly bouncing and balancing heavy dialog and lighthearted banter, and stepping aside to let each shine for pivotal monologues, the actors’ performances, both hilarious and poignant, play out much like the recurring three-card sleight of hand that underscores the text – both as a point of contention between the brothers and a focus-pull for the audience. Watch closely…did you catch it? The clues were always there, but by the time you realize what’s about to happen, and why, it’s much too late.
Topdog/Underdog is playing at New York’s John Golden Theatre for a limited 16-week engagement.