TOPDOG UNDERDOGby Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Tre Garrett
Set Design - Michael Pettigrew
Light Design - Nicki Deshea Smith
Costume Design - Barbara O`Donoghue
Sound Design - David Lanza
Prop Design - Nettie Vinson
Stage Manager - Aaron Petite
Reviewed Performance: 10/9/2011
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
This extreme vulnerability and nakedness to the elements is only one aspect of the sad yet powerful play, TOP DOG/UNDERDOG, now being performed at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth. Fear, anger, abandonment, hate, jealousy and isolation invade and envelope a fraternal feud ? a brother to brother "game" to see who will emerge on top and who will go under.
Suzan-Lori Parks received the Pulitzer Prize and became the first African-American woman to do so with TOP DOG/UNDERDOG. Director Tre Garrett noted that Parks described her play as being about "family wounds and healing". I would go further to say it exposed a wound so deep and infected, there could be no healing, no saving ? only faint heartbeats and slight motions from lives that had been.
Two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, come back to live together in Booth's tiny space after years apart, living with wife or women, doing odd jobs and street hustles. Both named for a joke by their father, the two had been abandoned by first one parent and then the other as teenagers. Fending for themselves until adulthood, their outlook has become only what they can plot, scheme and take from life, whether from a fancy department store rack or a naive gambler on the street. The younger brother, Booth, has been practicing his art of the "three card monte", the game that first made Lincoln the king from coast to coast, so he claims. But Lincoln's last hustle demolished a family, taking all their money, leaving him unnerved and toppling his crown. He allows himself now to be humiliated, dressing as Abe Lincoln, in white face, and sitting still while arcade players assassinate him over and over again. It is from this height and depth we find the brothers, and the true game begins and fatefully ends.
During the pre-show, Booth walked around his tiny box of a home while the back wall video displayed images of oppression, fear, lynchings, civil rights riots, Abe Lincoln, anxiety, poverty, Malcom X, guns, money, and over and over again the words "Stop Killing Each Other". The room itself had a well lived-in, make-do feel with an iron twin bed hiding all Booth's worldly possessions, plastic crates for table, and tacked-up shelves to hold everything else.
Lincoln slept in a crammed-in easy chair with his belongings tucked all around. Those image metaphors inside such a claustrophobic space was Set Designer Michael Pettigrew's powerful way of visually exploring these men's lives.
Nicki Deshea Smith's lighting was dim as represented by a single, naked light bulb on the ceiling and one more by the bed. An outside neon sign light blinked on and off and I thought it should have been harsher and more prevalent to emphasize their harsh existence.
Costumes as conceived by Barbara O'Donoghue were current day with only a hint to past styles in the brother's filched suits, shoes and ties. The Abe Lincoln costume pieces were appropriately ratty, thin and pathetic. Nettie Vinson chose carefully selected items to furnish Booth's room ? a couple of glasses, one coffee cup ? no saucer, a few knick-knacks possibly from home, and all sorts of things bulging out from underneath the bed.
Besides some hard-hitting pre-show and intermission music, David Lanza's sound designs included the usual urban street noise of traffic, sirens and people, continually drifting to the walk-up, and it too could have used a bit more punch during dialogue lulls.
In tour de force performances, David Jeremiah and Gregory "Rico" Parker as Lincoln and Booth played an acting chess game of words and wit. Performing on a stage where they could barely turn, much less get away; they were made to continually confront each other as actors, exactly as the brothers were each forced to confront the other and themselves. First onstage, Parker's Booth was gentler, more upbeat and enthusiastic about his soon to be new "career" street hustling. He started polar opposite to where Lincoln found himself. Then slowly, Booth decayed to his brother's level - low-dealing and low-believing towards the inevitable.
Jeremiah's portrayal of Lincoln's anguish and defeat showed moments of Greek pathos. To figuratively and literally allow people to murder him over and over - a little death every day - was painful to witness and his suffering and remorse were palpable.
The play reversed the brothers' status time and again, sometimes slowly, and then in a flash and back again. Both actors played their characters full tilt and for real, and the only time I lost some of that realism was in Parker's early banters with Jeremiah where his lines were just words and not present moment responses vital between them.
I also felt Director Garrett didn't play it hard and urban enough. The setting identified it, the characters were ripe for it and the text and subtext demanded hard core rawness but the emotional direction reached only three-quarters of the way up and not to the top which I believe was Suzan-Lori Parks' intent.
Not often do audiences have the chance to watch two actors, paired on such an equal level of acting ability, and stripped of most blocking, be allowed to simply act. TOP DOG/UNDERDOG give the situation, Jubilee Theatre gives the opportunity, David Jeremiah and Gregory "Rico" Parker gives the performances, and the audience gets to reap the rewards. The Director also noted, "It has been said that this play is too challenging, rough and raw for (the theatre's) audiences." He disagrees and so must I. The DFW area can handle this thought-filled tragedy as can Jubilee Theatre and I believe the next level, for them, has just been raised.
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102
Plays through October 30th
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, and Saturdays-Sundays at 3:00pm.
Tickets are $15 - $25 with a $10 online special on Thursdays.
For tickets and information go to www.jubileetheatre.org or Call 1-817-338-4411.