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TOPDOG/UNDERDOG affords a conflicted look at the African American male@ none too fragile

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for her script “Topdog/Underdog,” now in production at none-too-fragile theatre.  She also won the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award for the play.   The script is an existential trip asking, “What is it like to be a black male in modern America?”

Being a student of James Baldwin, African American powerhouse writer, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, afforded Parks a model for delving into the Black experience, especially the male experience.

“Topdog/Underdog” showcases how two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, deal with women, poverty, racism, and their troubled upbringing.  They came from a home where the mother abandoned the family, the father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke, and also split from the boys when they were teens, and the duo has struggled to find a constructive place in society.

The setting is a depressing, small apartment in an unnamed urban area.  The  brothers have a relationship based on a thin line of being brothers, but brothers of a very different ilk.  Lincoln graduated from high school and has been employed with odd jobs.  His latest is being a stand-in for Abraham Lincoln at an arcade, where the patrons pay to assassinate honest Abe, much like John Wilkes Booth did near the end of the Civil War as he watched a production of “Our American Cousin” in Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre.  In the role he is painted with white makeup and given a lower wage than his white predecessor.  With little compassion, he is fired and replaced by a wax figure.

Lincoln walks through life in a coma.  He was married, but his wife left because his life centered on making money by conning tourists while performing a three-card Monte game.  When his partner was killed, he left the “business.”  He sleeps on a recliner in his brother’s apartment, which, he pays for with his arcade job.  He spends most of his time drinking, lying in the chair, and hanging out.  After his firing, he turns back to a life of shilling, with eventually bitter results.

Booth, a high school dropout with no prospects for any type of income, spends his time trying to emulate his brother’s success as a card dealer, telling fantasy success tall tales about his carnal life with Grace his “fiancé,” stealing , and fantasizing about sex.

As the prospects for their futures become more and more tenuous, a psychological battle between Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog) escalates.   Eventually, Booth shoots Grace and, as their names indicate, a confrontation between the brothers brings to a climax the tale of Lincoln and Booth.

The none-too-fragile production, under the direction of Sean Derry, though overly long, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  The quality of the acting is excellent.  Both Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth and Robert Grant III as Lincoln are totally natural and don’t act the parts, but become the characters.   Short, chunky Armour reeks of a frustrated boy-child with no realistic future, so he must invent a reason for respect and purposefulness.  Tall, handsome, Grant wants desperately to escape from his frustrating trap of a life, but doesn’t have the skills or tools to see daylight.

Capsule judgement:  “Topdog/Underdog” is one of those well directed, acted and written plays that should be seen by anyone interested in the plight of the Black man in America.  On the other hand, with nearly one in three 20-29 year-old African American males under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, in  jail, or on parole or probation, it is frustrating to realize that the situation may be hopeless and there appears to be no way to solve the problems.  Sad, so sad.

For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to