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.
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 presidents box seat
at the Ford Theatre. The illustrative use of the provocative
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
Booth demands, "Don't be callin' me Booth no more."
He insists on a new African name, but finally settles for the
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
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
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 www.unicorntheatre.org.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com