A DRAMATURGICAL RESPONSE TO CONCERNING ELEMENTS OF TOPDOG/UNDERDOG BY SUZAN-LORI PARKS
by Alexander Charles Adams
This memo’s purpose is to explain two major elements of Suzan-Lori Parks’ script, Topdog/Underdog, that have proven to be difficult for the production team to rationalize. The two elements in question are: the very early point of attack and the parallel to the Lincoln assassination made by naming the depicted characters Lincoln and Booth. Parks devises many clear conventions in this play, but makes the striking choice to uphold those conventions through to the end of the play. With that in mind, the unifying concept I propose to rationalize the production is to follow the setup. Parks sets up physical and figurative structures that hold the play together. Without differing examples to balance excess from recurring information and a readily accessible lens to understand the power struggle between Lincoln and Booth calling forth American colloquial memory, the structures are not clear. Parks maintains these structures instead of tearing them down for a shift in fortune or a great reveal.
In each scene, we learn information about the lives of Lincoln and Booth. However, it is typically in the same format with the exception of Scene 4, which I will speak to later. The brothers are constantly cycling through the life they were handed and never show interest in dong things without a scheme or theft. In Scene 5, Booth says, “That’s what Im gonna do. Give my kids 500 bucks then cut them out. That’s the way to do it.” Booth supports his upbringing by claiming he will follow his parent’s example. We see both Lincoln and Booth grasp at tricks and quick, foolhardy solutions throughout the play. Parks expresses this in a pattern across all scenes in the form of literal and figurative games. The setup of the game is followed by a truth or information. For instance, the Ma and Pa routine in Scene 2 turns into an exchange of stolen gifts that bring up cursory memories, the “did you use a rubber” game in Scene 3 devolves into a contest between Booth’s falsified sexual release and Lincoln’s imitations of the release of death, and the “you have news, I have news“ game in Scene 6 devolves into genuine and fatal revelations between the brothers. All are examples of a false pretext leading a scene that then breaks down into argument and some form of enlightenment.
In Scenes 1, 4, and 5, Parks leads with a literal game, 3-Card Monte. The game has very specific rules and codes that keep the dealer and his crew safe and the hustle efficient. There is a specific physical and social structure in place to uphold the game. Moreover, the game is never played on a regular surface. It is elevated on milk carts or the bed when depicted in the play. There is a literal set up to the game that Parks follows. Through the play, seeing multiple nights over many weeks, we see this pattern never change. If there is not a figurative game, there is a physical one. Parks equates the two across the scenes and uses it to instigate all exchanges between the brothers.
Even in Scene 4, where Lincoln revels the entire patter of 3-Card Monte while Booth sleeps, the literal game appears in the text. After a few stanzas, Booth wakes up. After he wakes, he lies there while Lincoln finishes the patter. Parks established a game that instigated a basic exchange, which was built on by the subtle release of truth. The truth being that Lincoln remembers more about hustling than he lets on to Booth and Booth realizes his brother may be trying to suck him dry. In this pivotal moment, we see Parks bend her conventions but not break them. In a shorter span of time, these patterns may not be as clear or readily explainable. It is stronger to give the reader multiple examples to sift through and recognize patterns than throw recurring actions so close to one another; like packing the information of six scenes into one. Seeing these patterns play out over weeks and months, they are more authentic and believable.
Parks concerns herself with genuine interactions and construction of dramatic structure. Building upon those principles, there is less of a concern for the universality of the experiences Lincoln and Booth share, specifically to non-black readers. The parallel made between the historical figures allows a larger margin of readers to understand the play and heightens the power struggle between Lincoln and Booth. By drawing this parallel, Parks summons American cultural memory of the Lincoln assassination and the civil war. In so doing, you can super-impose the plot of those historical events onto the plot and conflicts of Topdog/Underdog.
Lincoln and Booth are assigned topdog and underdog, respectively, in the preface of the script. Parks facilitates the struggle between the brothers and provokes questions to arise from the games, mentioned before. One of the most provocative dramaturgical choices is the naming of the older brother Lincoln and the younger brother Booth. It stirs the minds of both the readers and the characters onstage. Lincoln, playing Lincoln in an assassination reenactment, talks about his namesake throughout the play. He reveals that his father told him that he and his brother were named after the historical figures as a joke. That fact makes the choice appear trivial casting it the back of the reader’s mind. Parks shifts the focus onto the brother’s pasts and actions. For instance, Lincoln is an ex-hustler who now tiptoes to maintain a steady job and clean from throwing cards but Booth is attempting to learn how to hustle by throwing cards and abhors Lincoln’s ideals of a daily job, family, and life planning.
Parks makes a deliberate parallel to historical events and follows her setup by not altering the major plot or the motivations of the Lincoln assassination. Parks makes it clear that the differences between the brothers are idealistic within each scene, much like the differences between the historical figures Lincoln and Booth. Booth shot Lincoln because he thought his ideas were better; that he was better. That statement fits both the historical event and the finale of this play. The duality of this story strengthens the dramatic structure Parks lays out. Both stories could stand alone, but the symbiotic relationship Parks establishes nourishes both structures. The combination of the stories gives Topdog/Underdog duality on multiple levels: open/closed off and historic/insignificant. In naming these characters Lincoln and Booth, Parks sets up expectations of the reader and follows through on them to deliver a blunt and genuine message. The Topdog/Underdog structure is a false dichotomy in a sick game setup by social conventions that Parks highlights.
I chose these two elements not only because they were the major concerns of the team, but also because they rely on one another to stand. The names bring gravity and clarity to the story Parks setup, but it requires separate, similar examples to discriminate outliers from the through line. Not only does Parks setup these conventions to highlight her focus and direct the play from the page, but she reiterates herself consistently by following through on her missions; as if to dramatize the adage “history repeats itself.” Finally, I suggest we approach the play with the idea of construction and dramatic build to move the play forward. With building in mind, the tempo, stakes, and interest will peak as we follow it through to the very last moment. Through that lens, we stand to build a successful interpretation and production of Parks’ Topdog/Underdog.