It’s a rough world for the two brothers in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog. The one named Lincoln actually performs the part of Abraham Lincoln in an amusement arcade where customers get to “assassinate” him again and again. His younger brother Booth lives in a slovenly, dilapidated apartment where he practices Three-Card Monte, the source of what little income he’s able to generate. Lincoln’s wife has abandoned him; Booth’s girlfriend is notoriously fickle, and leaves him waiting for six hours when she’s scheduled to visit for dinner. Lincoln’s job is threatened: There’s word that his boss intends to replace him with a wax dummy. Booth can’t hold down a job, and routinely steals everything from his clothes to his dinnerware. When the two brothers are together, solidarity can quickly change into hostility, even violence. And haunting them both is the fact that their parents abandoned them when they were both barely out of childhood.
If this sounds like it could make for a nerve-wracking drama, it does — and still it’s one worth seeing. Thanks to the superb acting of Joshua Goff and Willie Hannah, Topdog/Underdog provides a provocative look at victims of American racism as they try to make good lives out of the little that society’s offered them. The play is the first presentation of Fluid Expressions, a new theater company devoted to “historically marginalized artists and audiences,” and if every one of their productions is as well-acted as this one, Bay area theatergoers have much to look forward to. Goff and Hannah could hardly be better, and directors India Davison and Clareann Despain stage the play with remarkable dynamism. I’ve been watching Goff’s work for over two decades, but I’ve never seen him hold the stage as handily as he does on this occasion. And though I’ve witnessed Hannah only once before — in Parks’ play In the Blood at Stageworks, years ago — this outing proves him to be one of the sharpest actors in the region.
The play they enliven comes back repeatedly to the game of Three-Card Monte that Lincoln once mastered but now has thrown aside like an addiction he dare not return to. This leaves Booth as the sole practitioner in the family, and he obsesses on technique like the most committed professional. I don’t claim to understand the entirety of Parks’ inspiration, but I suspect that her real subject here is a nation that has so rejected the legitimate aspirations of its black citizens, it’s left them with little but scams and frauds on which to fasten their hopes. Certainly that’s the message of Hannah’s portrayal of Booth. Hannah’s Booth is a man whose horizon is limited to the people he can deceive, the consumer goods he can “boost,” and the skin magazines he can collect. His relationship with his girlfriend is more virtual than real, and his loyalty to his brother is dangerously rickety. Goff’s Lincoln, meanwhile, is trying to earn an honest living, but the only work he can find is a constant reminder that the author of Emancipation was murdered for his efforts, and a lot of Americans apparently want to murder him again. Goff is particularly effective at showing that Lincoln has all the integrity necessary to become an upstanding citizen; what’s missing, of course, is a little thing called opportunity. Goff also gets a chance to show why his brother looks up to him as a card-handling phenomenon. If Lincoln has given up the game, it’s not because he lacks the talent — or the essential shrewdness.
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The Fluid Expressions production takes place at HCC Ybor’s Studio Theatre, where Despain’s set is appropriately messy and downscale. There’s a sloppy bed and a chair, and the table on which Booth practices his art is made of a disassembled cardboard box on a couple of plastic crates. When expecting a night with his girlfriend, Booth steals a tablecloth, wine glasses, silverware — and, for a few moments, his apartment actually looks habitable. Davison’s costumes, meanwhile, are carefully chosen, from the brothers’ T-shirts to the Abraham Lincoln costume to the attractive jackets that Booth rips off from a nearby store. Framing the stage are two curtains printed with what look to be 19th-century notices of slaves for sale.
As anyone who’s seen In the Blood can attest, Parks doesn’t write feel-good fantasies. But if you can handle the roughness of Topdog/Underdog’s world — and the occasional monotony of its constant conflicts — you just might find that the play communicates a powerful view of the legacy of American racism. So, welcome to the Bay area, Fluid Expressions. You’ve made a fine start with a challenging play. May all your productions be as successful.