Huntington's "Top Dog/Underdog": Everybody Has a Laughin' Place

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson & Matthew J. Harris in "Top Dog/Underdog"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Watch me close. Watch me close now”.

So begins the dialogue between two protagonists in the current Huntington Theatre Company production of Top Dog/Underdog, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3) . It takes place, “here” and “now” in the starkly furnished room of two young African-American men who are brothers, best friends and bitter rivals. Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), in his late 30's, is a former three-card monte hustler who now works as a Lincoln impersonator (in white face) in an arcade shooting gallery where people pay to shoot at him with plastic guns. Booth (Matthew J. Harris), in his early 30's, unemployed for quite some time, is a shoplifter who wants his brother to get back in the game and teach him the ropes. Both were twice abandoned in their youth, by both their father and their mother. “Link” seeks advice from Booth in honing his acting skills as a dying Lincoln, while Booth seeks to learn how better to execute the card game scam. Their efforts to attain their respective goals quickly devolves into what is described in the program notes as a “darkly comic fable of brotherly love and sibling rivalry...about family wounds and healing bonds”. In the course of their banter, we learn about Booth's obsession with his girl friend Grace (whom we never see) and perhaps sexual allusions to shooting blanks. Parks is particularly adept at such portrayals.

This two-hander, in its depiction of how each brother aspires to improve his skills, affords an opportunity to witness both the creation of a performance and the crucial stakes of enhancing one's success. Parks has stated that “there is a lot of watching...what theater is about” and that she likes larger than life characters, setting up a relationship between audience and performer, wonderfully enhanced by Director Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, The Colored Museum). Consider the words of “Link”: “Fake beard. Top hat. Don't make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that” and “Cards ain't luck. Cards is work. Cards is skill.” And those of his brother Booth: “You're only yourself when no one's watching!”. The title of the play refers to the psychological term for the dominant side and the submissive side, and in this work they switch constantly, each continually trying to be the dominant person in the room. George C. Wolfe, who directed the play's New York premiere, references a “point in the play where the two brothers stop being brothers and turn into male animals. That's when deadly, awful things can happen”. And Parks' world is one of “curious contradictions”. Porter references the institutionalized racism that has quietly raged in this country for years, given the fundamental psychology of slavery as the breakdown of family, slaves ripped from their families, separated from their community. They are “constantly trying to come back together...we succeed a lot, but sometimes we don't. This play speaks to when we don't...stuck playing someone else's game”. Porter has exquisitely directed (or more to the point, choreographed) his two exemplary actors with their every gesture, every inflection, every nuance in harmony like a concert or ballet. They together produce an emotional wallop.

The creative team is at the level one expects from this company. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg are outstanding, providing a touch of magical realism. The Scenic Design and Costume Design, both by Clint Ramos, are truly extraordinary. Ramos' set, described by Porter as a room floating in the middle of the world, resembles nothing so much as a perch above a giant briar patch, which, if intentional, would be an ironic nod to the stereotypical Uncle Remus stories of Br'er Rabbit and his “laughin' place”. And there is much black humor (no pun intended) even within these crumbling walls. The details are wonderful, from the tin ceiling to the torn wallpaper and disrupted crown molding that are seemingly left over from a converted hotel ballroom. It creates a great playing space for the two brothers to interact, and Harris and Henderson make the most of it. Harris has by far the showier role and is amazingly fluid in his movement and dialogue, but Henderson in his own quietly storming way is a perfect match for him. The trio of Porter, Harris and Henderson are what unforgettable theater is at its best. Porter's work is astonishingly powerful, the finest piece of directing in decades of one's theatergoing. Yes, he's that good.

The play has one drawback: the predictability of its conclusion; but this should be viewed as a dramatic inevitability. Meanwhile, Parks is hard at work with more universal themes. She has always maintained that we have an important relationship with the past, and she continues to do so here. She sees life (especially for African-American males in this country) as a reaction to who the world thinks you're going to be, and how you struggle with that.  She also reflects on what it means to be a family, and, extrapolating to the family of man, how we are connected with somebody else. With specific reference to this work, she has bluntly stated that “a black play ain't playing your game. It might look like it's playing your game, but if it looks that way to you, then that means you been played, honey”. Porter echoes the thought:”If the three-card monte dealer doesn't want you to win, you do not win. If you win, it's only because he lets you”. More to the point, Parks has Lincoln declare to Booth:”you had the card but you didn't have the heart”. Parks has been acclaimed for her almost musical writing, re-imagining the past, filling the “Great Hole of History” as an archeologist of words. With a subtle sense of improvised jazz-like repetition and revision (what she calls “Rep and Rev”), she allows for the presence of metaphor, pulling us in with what she also refers to as “drama of accumulation”, sometimes reminding one of the films of Bunuel. One awaits more works from this keenly observant, still youthful writer; this is especially true given the recent damage done on the national level to what some of us had naively beheld as a post-racial era, when we elected and re-elected a president of color, only to see him be succeeded by a colorful performer with more dangerous racist tricks than card games up his sleeves. We need a playwright like Parks now more than ever; as she herself put it (in the aforementioned Father Comes Home from the Wars at ART in Cambridge two seasons ago), “keep your treasure close”.

Watch her close. Watch her close now.

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