Topdog/Underdog and Neat Explore Bitter and Sweet Stories of Very Different Black Families

On November 4, Topdog/Underdog became a period piece. Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer winner about black brothers named Lincoln and Booth—their father's idea of a joke and Parks' method of foreshadowing their fate—is only 7 years old. But in our post-election Age of Re-Enlightenment, the play's nihilistic view of the thwarted status of African-American men has lost a bit of its sting.

Or maybe the piece is now simply free to resonate as a witty, well-crafted two-hander instead of a clunky, cartoonish metaphor about racial identity. Stripped to its bare essentials, Topdog/Underdog is getting new life right now through the exhilarating performances of Dallas actors David Jeremiah and Christopher Dontrell Piper for the new Upstart Productions at The Dallas Hub in Deep Ellum. They've refocused the play, by accident or design, as an intensely moving story of jealousy and distrust between brothers abandoned in childhood by awful parents and stuck with each other for survival as adults.

Lincoln (played by Jeremiah) and Booth (Piper) struggle to navigate a netherworld of crime and poverty. Lincoln, an expert at the street hustle known as three-card monte, has lost his partner to gunfire and given up the game. He's trying to keep a low-paid "sit-down job" in an arcade shooting gallery. Wearing whiteface, fake beard and stovepipe hat, Lincoln—Parks does love layering her irony—silently portrays the Great Emancipator for pretend assassins who pay to aim blanks at the back of his head. He has one mysterious customer who returns daily. "People is funny about they Lincoln shit," he says.

Christopher Dontrell Piper and David Jeremiah put their cards on the table in Upstart Productions' Topdog/Underdog.
Elaine Liner
Christopher Dontrell Piper and David Jeremiah put their cards on the table in Upstart Productions' Topdog/Underdog.

Booth busies himself "boosting" food and clothes for the two of them. He also practices the moves of the card shark he'd like to become, though he's no good at the throws and doesn't understand the basics of the con. Lincoln tries to discourage his little brother. "There's more to life than hustling some idjit for his paycheck," Lincoln says.

The brothers bicker constantly—often hilariously—in the jazzy shorthand of siblings as they alternate scene to scene being follower and leader. One is always up and the other down, either threatening to leave or to kick the other one to the curb, though they're both afraid of being alone. Life looks bleak for the pair. And with the arcade manager threatening to replace Lincoln with a mannequin, they could soon be homeless.

Parks' message in all this is as obvious as the white greasepaint on Linc's face. But remember, she created Lincoln and Booth in 2001. Now when Booth complains that "the world puts a foot in your face and you don't move," it seems reasonable to think his misery might be his own damn fault for settling into a life of petty crime. He and his brother now read like relics from another era, as stuck in time as August Wilson's King Hedley II and similar characters created in an urban America pre-audacity of hope.

However you categorize it, Topdog/Underdog is still a fine way to spend two hours in the theater. It's exciting to see Upstart put a fresh spin on a play that has been here once before, produced four years ago on the big stage at Dallas Theater Center. Back then the script's violence, profanity and simulated masturbation scene (more comical than graphic in the Upstart production) sent some patrons huffing to the box office to demand refunds. That version, coming not long after the play's Broadway debut starring Jeffrey Wright and Mos Def, definitely went for in-your-face shock value. Every F-word was underscored, every gesture was larger than life. In retrospect, DTC's grandiose approach served only to shake up whitey with the X-rated ranting of two big, scary black men.

Which makes the quieter, less predictable and thus more effective production by Upstart even more interesting by comparison. Staged in a 50-seat studio space at The Hub, the play is scaled down to human proportions. The squalid one-room basement apartment shared uneasily by the brothers is rendered in stark, realistic detail by scenic designer Marc Rouse. Mousetraps lean on the chipped baseboards and squibs of yellow foam peek out of rips in the dirty green recliner where Lincoln sleeps. You can read the titles of the porn mags Booth stashes under his mattress and see the suits on the playing cards he slaps on the cardboard tabletop. And instead of carrying on arguments at the top of their lungs, as the actors did at DTC, this cast speaks at a natural, conversational volume, almost a whisper at times, with the audience sitting close enough to pick up every word.

Live theater is most exciting when the observer is cast in the role of eavesdropper. Upstart's production, co-directed by its stars, excels at this. For two hours, it's as if we're peering through a keyhole, seeing and hearing things we shouldn't be privy to and can't prevent. It takes great concentration and strong technique by actors to stand up to this sort of microscopic scrutiny. Jeremiah and Piper never falter. They are stunningly, insanely good in these roles. Real-life close friends since childhood, these young actors have an easy, spontaneous rapport on the stage. Their give-and-take is flawless, especially in those small, private bits of personal business when their characters count out the tight weekly budget, divvy up who gets how many "skrimps" from the Chinese takeout or just tease each other the way real brothers do.

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