Oct. 28, 2004


Disturbing layers of connection
By David Ollington

The playwright Suzan-Lori Parks can attach a number of remarkable accomplishments to her name and has received profound recognition for prolific, innovative and poetic work. Her play Imperceptible Metabolites in the Third Kingdom won the Obie award for the best new American Play in 1990. Her Venus won the same honor in 1996. She has received grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The list goes on.

Her play Top Dog/Underdog, currently running at the Unicorn Theatre, made her the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and rightly so. The Unicorn, as they do with most of their productions, offers the Kansas City premiere.

Top Dog/Underdog

(l to r) Cedric Hayman (as Booth) and Damron Russel Armstrong (as Lincoln) in the Unicorn Theatre production of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks. (photo by Cynthia Levin)

Disturbing, fearsome and labyrinthine, the piece unearths disturbing monsters of the psyche, and employs believable African-American dialect that smoothly and brilliantly shifts into subtle but profound poetic lyricism. Set in a run-down, small ghetto apartment, the story involves the conflicts and attempted connections of two brothers named Lincoln and Booth. The simplicity of the choosing of names with such historic resonance bursts with ironic impact. It was the characters' father's idea of a joke.

Lincoln, the older brother, works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade. Customers encounter him and pretend to shoot him in an imitation creation of the late president’s box seat at the Ford Theatre. The illustrative use of the provocative names continues.

Lincoln fears losing his job because of cutbacks. Booth suggests he practice dying more convulsively to better secure the employment. They actually rehearse, allowing us to watch Booth repeatedly “shoot” Lincoln, an obvious choice that Parks craftily wove into the play eliciting humor and horror.

The destitute financial state of the brothers’ living condition, the presence of a revolver in their pitifully small room, the discomfort of their proximity and smoldering resentment fuel crooked trickery between the siblings. Parks uses the game of three-card monte as a recurrent motif, which, like the evocative names of the characters, serves as literary glue that holds together two destitute characters' tattered stories.

Three-card monte is a street scam involving a solo performer challenging a wagering audience to keep track of a facedown card as he artfully mixes them, a card version of the shell game.

Booth demands, "Don't be callin' me Booth no more." He insists on a new African name, but finally settles for the name "Three-Card."

The show opens with Cedric Hayman as Booth practicing three-card monte, deftly tossing three cards, hypnotically repeating to an imaginary viewer "Watch me close." His older brother, Lincoln (Damron Russel Armstrong), we learn, plays with a higher level of expertise but has vowed to never play again. Their penniless state leads him to break that vow and the tension between the brothers build to a deadly, high-stakes game of brother-against-brother three-card monte.

Tension builds in the play's action and also maintains at a high enough frequency to keep viewers on edge with both enrapture and frustration.

Fate has blessed the Kansas City theatre community with a genius of a sound designer David Kiehl. His choices for music between scenes evoke urban imagery; you can hear the streets in the sounds. He succeeds at creating an echo of a character's howling that makes you wonder if you're hearing hallucinatory wails. Kiehl followed an actor's climactic scream with an expressive saxophone piece that uncannily matches the timbre of the actor's voice. Kiehl's subtle and expressive choices for the sound design profoundly embellish the stark, streetwise words of Park's creation.

Both actors, under the direction of Mark Robbins, appropriately manifest the characters in a way that's oddly both satirical and real, much as Parks welded vernacular to poetic. Hayman's Booth is in your face, energetic, quick-tempered and often boyishly humorous. One scene opens with him entering his small home and undressing with what looks like a strip tease but then becomes layered revelations of the clothes Booth recently shoplifted.

Armstrong as Lincoln walks, sits and moves like a man numbed by the hopelessness of his life. He appears in white face, dressed as Abraham Lincoln, seemingly in shock over having to dress in such a horrific way. Armstrong contrasts Hayman's energy with this subdued state. This often works, but occasionally during some of his longer speeches, Armstrong loses intensity and interest.

Gary Mosby's set includes a slanted floor, a scary hallway with a dangerous corner, peeling wallpaper and a light fixture literally hanging by wires from the wall. The light flashes each time the door shuts, a fire waiting to happen.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ play forces us to witness a brutal incarnation of the human shadow, employs innovative language and repeatedly surprises. Top Dog/Underdog is both entrancing and difficult to watch. Its effects linger.

Top Dog/Underdog runs through Nov. 7, 2004, at the Unicorn Theatre. Tickets can be purchased at the Unicorn box office by calling 816-531-7529 X 10 or by going to

David Ollington can be contacted at or



2004 Discovery Publications, Inc. 104 E. 5th St., Ste. 201, Kansas City, MO 64106
(816) 474-1516; toll free (800) 899-9730; fax (816) 474-1427

The contents of eKC are the property of Discovery Publications, Inc., and protected under Copyright.
No portion may be reproduced in whole or part by any means without the permission of the publisher. Read our Privacy Policy.