Topdog/Underdog

Turns out I was on schedule and somehow I got my dates mixed up. Oh well, today’s post is about Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog! There is language, sexual references, and some violent imagery, including gun violence. If you like Sam Shepard’s True West or Ralph Ellison’s the Invisible Man, then Topdog/Underdog will definitely appeal to you!

Plot: Two brothers struggle for power through their intimate relationships and work.

Initial thoughts: I was surprised to find out this play was workshopped as early as 1999 because it feels so contemporary. The play has a feeling not of timelessness but rather timeliness. Parks includes a sense of trapped experience for African-Americans in the play, which is still just as true today as it was in the early 21st Century when Parks was writing it. Heck, it could even be placed in a historical setting and the message would seem just as true!

That said, it’s a two-person play and has many silent moments, designated within parentheses ((as such)). Some moments of the play are ((((meant to be performed very softly)))), which is juxtaposed with the moments of intensity, which are DESIGNATED AS SUCH!!! The visual journey of reading the text is as poignant as seeing it performed, with language written colloquially, such as “thuh” for “the,” “uh” for “a,” and “yr” for “your.” There are no apostrophes marking contractions, so grammatically, it’s an insightful journey in the audio-cultural landscape of African-Americans. The lyrical, repetitive, and rhythmic nature of the play also plays on language patterns stereotypical of African-Americans in media, so there’s some troubling over embracing and rejecting African-American identity.

Itty Bitty Research: At the heart of the play is the three-card monte, which you can see explained here. By watching this short video, you see not only how the communal involvement of “thuh Dealer, thuh Stickman, thuh Sides, thyuh Lookout and thuh Mark” work together to make the hustle possible, you also see how the Dealer can easily trick bystanders with a sleight of hand (71). Link’s besting of his own brother is not necessarily because of how fast he is because, as the video points out, it is a matter of how he trades the cards off rather than how fast his hands are, which Booth immediately mistakes.

Interestingly, the three-card monte is usually played with jacks, queens (“follow the lady” is also a popular name for the game), kings, and aces, so I wondered why deuces were chosen in particular. Deuces refers to the number 2 card, which not only represents the two brothers but also happens to be the lowest card of the pips. (Aces often fluctuate from being the highest and lowest amount, but deuces are consistently worth low value regardless of context.) From this number, we can assume that it represents the value inherently within both brothers: Link might be the “topdog” (2) and Booth the “underdog” (2) within their relationship, but ultimately they are both the lowest value in the grand scheme of society.

The rivalry between the brothers is also apparent through the suits they choose. Booth favors the ace of hearts while Link favors the aces of spades. These shapes are symbolic because they are nearly identical, but diametrically opposite spatially and color-wise. While the brothers are very similar, they are not the same. Card suits also have meaning according to the tarot, where hearts are associated with cups and spades with swords. Hearts are an emotional suit, which we see represented by Booth throughout the entire play. His emotions rule over him, and he is more concerned with his relationships with Link, Grace, and his mother than with money (arguably). In contrast, swords represent logical decisions, which Link favors throughout the play. He refuses to leave until Grace arrives (if ever), gets out of the con business after one of his fellow conmen is murdered, and he stays with a mundane, boring, and low wage job in an attempt to get out of a business he knows is bad for him. By the end of the play, his rationalizing that doing cons is a better life for him is not untrue, which is a critique of the kinds of opportunities and labor American social structures force African-Americans into.

Also interestingly, in four-colored decks, spades remain black and hearts remain red, making this play accessible to people with different understandings or backgrounds of playing cards. In a four-colored deck, clubs are green and diamonds are blue. Living in Las Vegas, I think this is true of some virtual poker machines, but I had never wondered why. Well, there you have it.

Rating: 3.3/5

Works cited: Parks, Suzan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001. Print.

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