The Footlight Players’ Late Night Series features edgy plays not usually produced in their regular season, and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog has plenty of edge. Amidst the obscenities and deconstructed, ghetto slang is a tale of the power play between two brothers several years apart, Lincoln (Jerod Frazier) and Booth (Tremaine Rapp), who struggle with their definitions of manhood and power in the larger context of the disintegration of the family and urban culture.
Abandoned by their parents as adolescents, Lincoln and Booth formed a bond taking care of each other. Both feeling powerless, they find themselves competing for the topdog position. Lincoln, the older brother, is now divorced, and living with Booth in a seedy, dilapidated room in a boarding house. Booth sleeps on a wooden bed with no mattress, and Lincoln sleeps in the overstuffed chair. They have no running water, but they have plenty of liquor. The room is furnished with four milk crates and a 2’x4′ sheet of cardboard that serves as the card table for Booth to practice his 3-card monte hustle.
With no job, Booth sets himself the goal of throwing the cards like his older brother once did, but he is impatient and arrogant, characteristics a hustler cannot afford. Lincoln has forsaken throwing cards, and is now playing Abraham Lincoln at an arcade where patrons fake shooting at him and he fakes dying. Their alcoholic father admittedly named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke, and Parks’ literary device is clearly foreshadowing. Deception and illusion are a part of not just the con game.
Parks also analyzes family dynamics. Booth reverently protects his “inheritance” that his mother gave him just before she left with another man. Lincoln reminisces about their father’s adulterous relationships and how a year later their father left, leaving most of his clothes behind. Both men’s relationships with women reveal their beliefs that sex equals power. Sometimes, the perception of power is more real than reality, and Parks cleverly leaves questions unanswered. “People like their history folded neat in a book,” Lincoln says, whether it is a family’s history or a nation’s.
The script is heavy in dialogue, and requires two strong actors for full impact. Under City Paper contributor Michael Smallwood’s direction, both actors understand their characters and their implied “Cain and Abel” relationship. Frazier wears Lincoln’s emasculation like a Victorian cloak, and his empowerment like a crown. Rapp bubbles with volcanic anxiety and delusion. Parks’ choice words deserve careful pacing for effective delivery. Rapp tends to rush through lines, losing the effect on the audience. Frazier has a steadier pace, partly because of his character’s nature, but his enunciation could be clearer. With as much vodka as they drink, the slim Booth should be buzzing from constantly sipping from a pint.
From the language to the themes to the hip-hop soundtrack, Topdog is drama that punches a harsh reality with snippets of humor. The two characters grasp to capture or recapture a sense of control over their self-destructive lives, which is their true inheritance.
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