Monday, October 03, 2005

Topdog Underdog (Beck Center)

Disturbing ‘Topdog Underdog’ at Beck Center

Early in her writing career The New York Times dubbed Suzan-Lori Parks, the author of ‘TOPDOG UNDERDOG’ now on stage at Beck Center, "the year's most promising new playwright." Since then she has gone on to become one of America’s premiere screen and stage writers. Her play ’IN THE BLOOD’ was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. ‘TOPDOG UNDERDOG’ won that prestigious prize.

Alphine Jefferson, the Dramaturge for Beck Center’s ‘TOPDOG UNDERDOG’ states in the show’s playbill, “This is not a ‘Black’ play. This is not an ‘African American’ play.” The writer goes on to state that the play is about the ‘determination to overcome the past.” I disagree with all of those concepts. I think it is a brilliant “Black” play. I think it is a play which speaks to the “African American” community. I didn’t perceive any attempt to “overcome the past.”

Park’s play, which includes both drama and humor, uses the framework of sibling rivalry, with its mix of love and jealousies, to examine urban African American existence. Building on the broken family, get rich quick schemes, lack of reality, not taking long term consequences into consideration but satisfying present day desires, she exposes raw nerves that only those who are familiar with the life can totally appreciate. This appeared obvious on opening night as the interracial audience seemed to react from their backgrounds. While Caucasians generally sat politely and observed. Many of the African American viewers orally voiced opinions, laughed at “in jokes” they shared with the playwright, and gave the production a standing ovation.

The primary recurring theme in the play is the game of Three Card Monty. This is the shill-game often seen on street corners in urban areas. It is played by flipping three cards and getting someone in the vicinity to bet on where the sole black card is located. Lincoln, once a hustler, had used the profits from this con game to keep himself and his brother out of poverty. Lincoln has since reformed, but Booth wants the once-plentiful income to continue, so he begins practicing the Three Card Monty routine, while stealing to make ends meet. Throughout the play he urges his brother to revert to his scamming days or, at least, teach him the routine.

Parks has wisely chosen the title of the play. If a person is on top, then someone is on the bottom. There has to be a winner and a loser. In Three Card Monty one person, the top dog, wins. The other loses. This also corresponds to our society, the land of the haves and have-nots. Lincoln and Booth are both have-nots, as is much of the African American community. Some of those issues smacked all Americans on the side of the head with the recent revelations of living and social conditions of the survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Some reviewers complained that by naming the characters Lincoln and Booth the play’s conclusion is precast and therefore predictable. So what? We know where the train wreck is heading and it does the expected. This is not a mystery in which we have to guess the killer’s identity. This is not a fantasy which leads us down paths to the unknown. The author wanted to alleviate the guess work and center on character development and investigation of societal issues. I believe she did that with clarity.

Don’t assume this is a perfectly written play. It is not. The script has too many words. Some of those could have been cut without losing much effect. But, given the script, director Dale Sheilds has directed the play for maximum effect. He is blessed with two brilliant actors. Both Ed Blunt and Jimmie D. Woody are superb. They never lose their characters. They were often mesmerizing. At no time could one’s attention be drawn away from the stage.

Blunt, as the wiser Lincoln, is a study in control and precision. He is alternately despondent and wickedly sharp, often in the same moment. Woody’s Booth, who is younger and more given to impulse, is developed with pinpoint accuracy. The chemistry between the two is spellbinding.

Don McBride has created a perfect shabby claustrophobic room. It sets the proper mood. Deanna Cechowki’s costumes, especially the suits that Booth has stolen, often lack the sharpness that “cool” Black men would wear, but are serviceable.

Capsule Judgment: ‘TOPDOG UNDERDOG’ is a powerful, if overlong play. It is well directed and acted by the cast at Beck Center. It is a production well worth seeing.