‘Topdog/Underdog,’ The Cons’ Slow Walk Into Violence
Suzan-Lori Parks’ revival of her Pulitzer Prize winning Topdog/Underdog currently at the Golden Theater measures all the worst elements of America’s love affair with hustlers, grifters, swindlers, confidence men and bamboozlers. Clever con artists encourage the falsehoods of the American Dream, the greatest con ever, that prosperity buys happiness. Brothers Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and Lincoln (Corey Hawkins), have bought into the idea that to be “the man” they must do the con, in other words, financially “make a killing” easily and quickly.
Oftentimes, the admirer of the confidence game identifies with the artistry of the hustler, who dupes his mark because he plays upon his vulnerabilities. Of course, the fan never believes that he could be the sucker who falls for the scam. Thus, arrogance and self-deception increase his susceptibility to the con artist’s fraud. Bamboozlers at the top of their game sense the weaknesses of their pigeons (greed, dishonesty, vanity, opportunism, lust, compassion, credulity, desperation and naïveté). They mine them like gold to bring their con home.
Topdog/Underdog reveals Parks’ sardonic genius, as she plays her audience with irony upon irony. Under the apt direction of Kenny Leon and his creative team we are sucked in to the long con as Parks prompts us to laugh at her brilliantly conceived characters Lincoln and Booth, expertly played by Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen II. Parks and Leon draw us into the illusion the characters create, as the hustler (Lincoln or Booth?), slowly lures his mark and exploits his vulnerabilities. The unfolding of the long con happens through a series of short cons where Lincoln and Booth circle each other, get the upper hand, then lose it as they temporarily fall for each others’ lies and posturing. However, one must look closely through the humor and the repartee because what is happening is the draw down to “make a killing.” Who the final winner is depends on how you see it.
Thematically, Parks uses the concept of the confidence game to expose the American culture’s hustle, primarily of Blacks, and of all who are not wealthy. Parks ridicules sub rosa all who believe they escape the oppressive economic structure which cons Lincoln and Booth to commit fraud, lie and steal. Indeed, the “unoppressed” don’t have to engage in such “criminal” behaviors to survive. Instead, they are duped into perpetuating the demeaning economic system and its institutions, only to create a different form of oppression in their lives, one that is harder to detect, and difficult to overcome.
Thus, as the audience watches Lincoln and Booth shred, front, insult and play each other as chumps, they sit smugly back laughing and missing the point. Parks, the con master, tapping their vulnerabilities has them on. This is especially so if the audience believes that not being of color exempts them from oppression. For in her primal message in this amazing work, Parks challenges us to empathize with the characters to fully understand how the profound racial themes, ironies and symbolism of Topdog/Underdog relate and interlock with the oppressive systems that hoodwink us and govern our lives.
The cleverly constructed two-hander, shepherded by Leon and performed with perfection by the actors, fascinates with dynamic, power shifting twists from beginning to conclusion. Lincoln is the older brother and the apparent “top dog.” He has what Booth wants, the talent and artistry to “make a killing” at three-card monte. However, Lincoln doesn’t “touch the cards” since the demise of one of his sidekicks in their scam that used to pull in $1000 a day. Lincoln’s teammate got shot. so Lincoln lays low and stops hustling. We discover this at the top of the play as Booth importunes his brother to teach him his moves and continually pesters him throughout Act I and II to join him and make tons of money at three card monte. Lincoln tells Booth he is done with the grift and involved with something else. However, Lincoln is blind to the import of what he’s chosen to do.
After his life fell apart and he lost his wife and his apartment, Lincoln was dislocated, a shadow of his former “cool” self, without wads of cash at his disposal. Desperate for money, at his wits end, Lincoln demeans himself by taking a job that racially exploits his dignity. Lincoln grovels for his money by sitting in a penny arcade dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, while visitors pay to shoot him. Booth finds the job despicable. He intuits that his brother is being “played” by his bigoted boss and the racists that pay to be the assassins of a black facsimile of President Abraham Lincoln. Part of Lincoln’s costume, along with the beard, hat and long coat of the type President Lincoln wore is the make up which is white face paint.
Parks’ irony in depicting the character of Lincoln is layered and upon examination, both humorous and tragic for many reasons. Lincoln playing Lincoln who “freed the slaves” out of convenience in the power struggle of the Civil War is a deprecating self-effacement and loss of empowerment for the once talented hustler. Lincoln’s white face is a further diminution into enslavement and toadying to “the man.” You can’t get much lower than a Black man putting on white face in an egregious parody which has him assume the role of his oppressor who conned the culture with his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The irony that President Lincoln wanted to send all the Blacks back to Africa doesn’t matter to Lincoln, whose lack of knowledge and desperation damn him to willingly accept the demeaning job which erodes his confidence and self-determination. Additionally, his small salary given to humiliate him by “playing” a president who was the dubious “savior” of Blacks and was hated by Southern bigots, who possibly have come to ridicule him, reveals the extent to which Lincoln is in bondage to the white power structure. That he tells Booth it’s an easy job is Parks’ further thematic irony. Indeed, it is easy to be hoodwinked by “the man,” to internalize oppression and enjoy it because it is safer than to struggle and stand up against it. Lincoln has integrated slavery into his being. He represents one type of Black man in the society who works for a pittance in a job not worth his dignity.
Already, we understand that Parks is having us on, as she has us on about the names of these brothers which their father gave them as a crude and blasphemous joke. It intimates one will murder the other at some point in their miserable lives. As Booth and Lincoln discuss their parents and upbringing, we realize it is a continuation of dis-empowerment, self-effacement and abuse in a continuum, Parks suggests, hearkens back to slavery days. Their parents have passed down to them a diminished life, where they believe dignity and empowerment are only achieved in perfecting “the con.”
Every aspect of their existence reflects their bondage to cultural oppression and impoverishment of opportunity. Lincoln and Booth live together in one raggedy, shabby room in a boarding house without a sink and a toilet. Arnulfo Maldonado’s pointed, superb set design speaks of the realistic poverty and destitution that discloses they are one level above homelessness. The few pieces of furniture and other items most probably are cobbled together from found objects on the street or those stolen, “boosted” by Booth which is his main hustle. It is Booth’s room, so he gets to sleep in the bed that looks like it was pulled from a 1940s psychiatric hospital shown in old black and white films. The recliner where Lincoln sleeps is uncomfortable without a mattress, pillow or blanket.
The beauty of this play is in deciding who the mark is for the long con, as the con artist lures him by degrees and allows him to think he is winning. It is also in understanding the degrees of subtly Parks uses to develop the manipulations of the brothers from their initiation of the first “throw down of the cards” metaphorically, to the last winning hit at the play’s conclusion in Act II. The actors ply their on-point artifice by degrees. Importantly, in Act I they both appear to be genuine and organic as the brothers congenially front each other and appear generous. Booth shares his boost of clothes with Lincoln. Lincoln shares his paycheck to cover the rent, food, etc. However, as the game is on and we get to know each brother, the tension mounts especially as Booth insists upon teaming up with Lincoln in the grand hustle, which Lincoln refuses to do throughout the play. Seemingly without intention, Lincoln’s refusal is a come-on, which makes Booth all the more hungry for Lincoln to engage with him.
In a progression of ironic comments Hawkin’s Lincoln lays bare Abdul-Mateen II’s Booth and his braggadocio about his “girlfriend” Grace. On the other hand, Booth massages Lincoln’s pride in his hustling expertise. He builds him up so he can then compete with him and indicate he, too, is an adept. Then, eventually he will take him down as he hoists Lincoln on his own arrogant petard. Theirs is a constant thrust and parry, dodge and pivot, shuck and jive. By the conclusion they slash and burn with cruelty. As the older brother, Hawkins’ Lincoln appears wiser. However, depending upon our interpretation and Parks’ ambiguity, which allows for a number of possibilities, his wisdom is turned on its head.
Both actors superbly intimate the growing rivalry via the subtext between the brothers. Lincoln’s talent is always in control of the thrust and parry required to lure in the stooge. This riles competitive Booth. Though neither understands their own identity, nor their place as pawns-suckers in the overall scheme of things, Booth has a better understanding of the white oppression that keeps Blacks demeaned. Lincoln has a greater understanding of human nature. Instead of uniting to benefit each other, both are debilitated by their own loss of machismo and pride, their self-confidence stripped by their upbringing and the surrounding culture. In attempting to get it back through “the con,” they only fall in the abyss. They don’t understand the extent to which they are duped by the economic system and its vast inequities. The only thing that Lincoln fully understands is that he is talented enough to rig the game of three card monte and win. It is this he attempts to teach Booth, who fails and answers Lincoln’s grift in the only way he knows how.
Parks indicates that both brothers are blind to their own entrenchment in the falsehoods of the power structure which suggests one can “get ahead” by any means necessary. Of course, ignorance of the game and not knowing one is being played is 90% of “the man’s” success. That the culture’s long con pits the players against each other, sometimes to the death, as in the case of Lincoln’s sidekick is a danger which rightly gave Lincoln pause. But Lincoln’s hands and ego, spurred on by Booth, are “itching” to throw the cards again. That he is “one of the best” is his tragedy.
Both of the brothers con each other until the game is over. Their persistence results in the fated ending which Parks intimates is an inevitability given the cultural context in which Black men, like Lincoln and Booth, attempt to survive. The way to figure out the winning card in the game of three-card monte is to watch the first move of the hustler’s hand at the outset. Lincoln sarcastically tells this to Booth in the last scene of the play, as he demeans his little brother with his perfect moves. Though Lincoln presents his mastery to Booth, both brothers are chumps, duped by the white patriarchy to see each other as “the enemy.”
They don’t understand their place in the culture because they lack the knowledge of the past. Without that knowledge they are conned into scamming money as a way to be in control and get power. However, the cultural long con is so viciously rigged against them and all the classes, even brothers turn against each other to prove themselves. It is a psychotic, racist society that perniciously strips Black men of their beauty and vitality, then entices them to self-destruction by getting them to believe they can win in a game that has been rigged against them from before the time they were born. In Topdog/Underdog Parks indicts the racist culture and condemns its wickedness in establishing, fueling and perpetuating the long con that annihilates.
Parks’ metaphor of cons as it relates to our culture is even more current today than when the play premiered on Broadway in 2001. As Lincoln and Booth try to get over to make it to the next day, they are representative Black men. On a fast track to hell, the brothers can’t win for losing. The economic and social system won’t let them succeed. They are fated to play each other until both are played out. Parks reveals with her trenchant use of the names that since the Emancipation of the Slaves, the con of freedom was just that, a con. For Blacks freedom is a bitter “pie in the sky” lure. The lure persists today more than ever as institutions are set up for the corporations and the uber wealthy to be the winners. Politicos use the long con to dupe their constituents that they will help them be prosperous. Considering that our freedoms are currently under siege from political con artists who lie, cheat and steal, thumbing their nose at the judicial system, Park and Leon’s production is horrifically in the moment.
The play’s symbolic themes are conveyed in Lincoln and Booth’s stylized world, rendered astutely by Maldonado, Dede Ayite’s costumes, Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting, and Justin Ellington’s sound design. Within that world are the deceptions that we think don’t apply to us. Yet, using Lincoln as her mouthpiece, Parks reminds us about what is key. “You win only if ‘the man’ lets you.” The power structure, the patriarchy, the haves will draw you with the short con so you stay to play the long con, where they attempt to take it all, even your illusions of democracy.
Parks brilliant play reminds that all of us are marks subject to the game controllers of the corrupt culture that values money over people. As Lincoln and Booth do, we guide our lives based on the lies of prosperity, of money equaling happiness, as we sacrifice the most important verities in our lives (love, family, friendship), to “get over” and prove we are “somebody.” Following this paradigm to its ridiculous conclusion, the “top dogs” of the culture are the most duped. They have ultimately rigged the game against themselves.
If Parks’ microcosm of the events that occur between the brothers is stretched to the macrocosm, no one wins. In fact the game destroys everyone who plays it. The controllers ultimately lose, because the values that make up the foundation of the game, that prizes money over people, are illusory. The controllers, too, are people, buying into the lie that money is more valuable than their own lives. Thus, the “top dogs” destroy the possibilities for their own goodness and benefit by harming others who are valuable human beings. Indeed, the “top dogs” are more blind, deaf and dumb than Lincoln and Booth. And ironically, with all their power and money, they are worthless. It is the brothers who we care about and with whom we identify and cry with, thanks to Hawkins and and Abdul-Mateen II’s wonderful performances.
Kudos to all the creative team who make this production scintillate with life. Once again these include Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Allen Lee Hughes (lighting design), Justin Ellington (sound design), Don’t miss Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen II’s superb performances in this gripping and matchless play. For tickets and times go to their website: https://topdogunderdog.com/tickets/