“Booth, sensing someone behind him, whirls around, pulling a gun from his pants.” This is the prescriptive stage direction that Suzan-Lori Parks writes early in her Pulitzer-winning 2001 play Topdog/Underdog (through June 10 at the Ubuntu Theater Project). If she follows Anton Chekhov’s dictum — “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off” — then someone’s going to fire that gun before the drama ends. In this two-person play, Parks writes her characters into a corner. It’ll either be Booth (Michael Curry) or his older brother Lincoln (Dorian Lockett).
The playwright provides plenty of foreshadowing along the way. She adds weight to the names of her protagonists so that they’re heavy with allusive meanings. Booth, for the assassin who killed our 16th president, and Lincoln, for that very same president. Parks pushes the irony to further extremes. Lincoln enters the apartment he shares with his brother dressed as Abraham Lincoln in white-face, stovepipe hat, and fake beard. Lincoln works in an arcade where patrons can reenact the assassination and shoot him with a pop gun. His job is to fall down dead.
Worried that he may lose the job, Booth suggests Lincoln amp up his performance. So they play-act the roles, with Booth as the shooter and Lincoln adding melodramatic flourishes to his fake death, writhing on the ground and trying out different screams. At this point, it feels like a given that Lincoln will be the character who gets shot. That’s what the tension in Topdog/Underdog keeps building on. Will Parks deliver on the expectations she’s set up or will she subvert them? You won’t find out until the final scene.
It was an overstatement to say that the brothers share an apartment. Lincoln’s wife has kicked him out. He is living week to week on his wages, homeless, friendless and sleeping on a reclining chair in his brother’s SRO. The shared bathroom is down the hall. Booth has an optimism that borders on and then veers into a private fantasyland. His ex-girlfriend Grace doesn’t want much to do with him. Neither he nor his brother has job skills or job prospects. But Lincoln was once an expert at three-card monte, a shell game that cons gullible gamblers out of their cash. Booth is keen to learn the game, but Lincoln’s given it up. He’s trying to go straight, but Booth keeps pressuring him to get back in the game.
In the list of dramatis personae, Parks describes Lincoln as the top dog and Booth as the underdog. But that alpha-male status doesn’t appear anywhere in his demeanor. As Lincoln, Lockett delivers a powerfully imagined performance that summons up the life of a marginalized Black man struggling in a white man’s culture. In his backstory, the history of his and Booth’s parents who deserted them when they were young, Parks’ language sounds visionary when Lockett/Lincoln speaks. Together, playwright and actor, they convey the idea of an America from someone whose experience of it is impoverished, literally and spiritually. Hopelessness pours out of Lincoln’s sweating skin.
Something’s broken in Booth, too, but he lacks the maturity to recognize it. Curry leans on his innate charisma to play the role. He’s a naturally sunny performer, like a young Stevie Wonder. But his enthusiasm is misleading as Parks moves the plot towards the inevitable denouement. The trouble between them isn’t a fight over power, for one brother to dominate the other. Lincoln tries to suggest another way of being in the world, one in which neither would have to cheat other people to make a living. But he’s exhausted his options and his imagination fails to capture or influence his little brother’s. Booth has suffered so much damage in the past he can no longer distinguish his flights of fancy from reality. When the two worlds collide, one of them will pick up the gun and put an end to all their better dreams.
Topdog/Underdog, through June 10, an Ubuntu Theatre Project at the Waterfront Playhouse & Conservatory, 2020 Fourth St, Berkeley. $15-$45; 510-646-1126 or ubuntutheaterproject.com