Dead Presidents

K. Todd Freeman as Booth and David Rainey as Lincoln in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog.
Michael Brosilow

When a playwright writes a loaded gun into the first act, Anton Chekhov noted, it had better be fired by the fourth. Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks' 2002 Pulitzer-winning drama now onstage at the Dallas Theater Center, has two acts, two characters and one gun. Fewer than five minutes of act one pass before Booth (played by K. Todd Freeman) waves his Saturday night special at older brother Lincoln (David Rainey). By the end of act two, the gun has been fired all right, and Parks isn't subtle about her foreshadowing of tragedy. Just look at the characters' names.

Why one African-American brother ends up killing the other in this latter-day Cain and Abel tale is revealed in just over two hours of fast, funny, profane and powerful dialogue. DTC's production, directed by Amy Morton, transferred here from critically praised runs at Houston's Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre and Chicago's Steppenwolf. The action is taut and the focus is on Parks' lengthy, slangy riffs. This is a playwright who invents her own rules for spelling and punctuation. Here's how one of Booth's speeches looks in the script: "I am a hot man. I aint apologizing for it. When I dont got a woman, I gotta make do. Not like you, Link. When you dont got a woman you just sit there. Letting yr shit fester. Yr dick, if it aint falled off yet is hanging there between yr legs, little whiteface shrivled up blank shooting grub worm. As goes thuh man so goes thuh mans dick. Thats what I say. Least my shits intact."

Equally matched Equity actors Freeman and Rainey work these fiery bursts of language like masters. Every line sounds natural, unforced and improvised. And they have sizzling chemistry together. Freeman and Rainey's Booth and Lincoln are believable brothers, mocking each other's mannerisms, arguing over money, food and pornography. These actors never stop talking, yet they say plenty in just their subtle shifts of facial expressions and their physical silhouettes. There is precision in how they sit, stand and pick up a fork. Freeman and Rainey's gestures and voices may slice the air like chainsaws, but their acting choices have been shaped with lasers.



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Topdog/Underdog's plot is deceptively simple. Lincoln and Booth, named by their alcoholic father as "his idea of a joke," are grown men still deeply bruised by being abandoned in adolescence by both parents. Lincoln's wife has recently tossed him out, forcing him to bunk in with his younger brother in a squalid one-room apartment that has no toilet or running water. "You live in the Third World, fool," Lincoln says to Booth. (Loy Arcenas' set juts the brothers' room at odd angles against a blood-red back wall.)

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Lincoln is a master of the easy-money three-card monte scam but has given up street hustling following the shooting death of his partner. Jobless Booth, who announces he'd rather be called "3-Card," is an expert at "boosting" flashy clothes and other goods from department stores. He wants desperately to learn how to "throw the cards," but his older brother refuses to teach him the moves. Lincoln supports both of them on a few hundred a week working in a seaside arcade. Wearing a frayed frock coat, stovepipe hat, fake beard and white greasepaint, he portrays Abraham Lincoln in a bizarre assassination tableau that allows paying customers to shoot him in the head with blanks. As if the job weren't humiliating enough for a black man, Lincoln's boss threatens to replace him with a wax dummy.

Lincoln philosophizes about this strange career choice, which he claims to enjoy. His ragged costume, he says, makes "fools out of all those folks who come crowding in for they chance to play at something great. Fake beard. Top hat. Dont make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that."

There is much more to Topdog/Underdog than its linear plot line. The play is a fable wrapped in a paradox inside a metaphor. Cain and Abel. Booth and Lincoln. A black man donning whiteface to play a white president who freed the slaves. Brothers enslaved by the pain of being named for an historical icon and an assassin by parents who walked out on them. A younger brother yearning to outplay the older one in a game only the older brother knows is rigged. The layers of conflict in this drama fold in and over and around again.

It's not a perfect play. The second act is weak. The first act hints at a better play lurking in the wings when Lincoln speaks of a mysterious visitor who whispers strange warnings in his ear just before shooting him in the head at the arcade every day. The visitor is never mentioned again.

When the brothers turn back to their childhoods, asking why this, why that about their absent parents, the play edges toward TV-movie melodrama. Both characters deliver long soliloquies in an empty room, a device that's contrived and takes the viewer out of the reality of the moment. But when Lincoln and Booth banter back and forth about money and dreams and when they're engrossed in throwing three-card monte, Topdog/Underdog sings out as brilliant, fresh American drama.

It's certainly a risky choice for the donor-conscious, white establishment-friendly Dallas Theater Center. From the first night of previews, the house manager has reported more mid-show walkouts than usual--30 one night, a dozen the next. (On the night reviewed, a Saturday preview, only a handful of ticket-holders didn't return for the second act.)

Patrons and even a few volunteer ushers have complained that the play uses too many cuss words and contains too much sexual content. This is definitely R-rated stuff, verbally and visually. In more than one scene Booth reaches into his knit boxer-briefs to stroke himself. He offers graphic descriptions of his sexual liaisons with girlfriend Grace. Booth's favorite adjective is "daddydicksticking," as in "anywhere in the daddydicksticking vicinity of my humble abode."

Definitely not for the conservative blue-hairs who tend to populate the DTC subscriber rolls. But so what? Theater needs to stretch past the safe and secure and to entertain new voices for a new audience. Topdog/Underdog is challenging but it's also thrilling. And between the F-words, it offers a riveting story of two brothers, allies and rivals who are fighting to survive as they figure out how to play the cards they've been dealt in life and how it feels to get played.

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