Two black brothers, one named Lincoln, the other named Booth.No, you did not read that incorrectly. Yes, the irony is purposeful.
TheatreLAB, home of “unexpected and evocative performance,” is at it again with another unforgettable piece. Finishing off their 2017/2018 season entitled “Picking Sides,” the award-winning Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks revolves around brothers Lincoln and Booth, their struggle with their past and the subsequent hardships that affect their future, as well as grappling with all-to-familiar scuffles with family and brotherhood.
With their father giving them the most ironic names as a mere joke, Lincoln and Booth struggle to make the most of their lives with the chips stacked against them. Lincoln, played by the powerful Jeremy V. Morris, is attempting to leave his successful career hustling three-card Monte behind him. In order to leave his hustling days behind him, Lincoln seeks out a more respectable job portraying his namesake in an arcade. Lincoln’s past haunts him as his younger brother, Booth, begs him to teach him the ways of three-card Monte. Lincoln desperately wishes to leave his past behind him and continue on the straight and narrow, but as everyone knows, it’s hard to leave your past behind. The symbol of the card is not just drawn from the hand of Lincoln. It’s also in the way these two brothers handle the cards they’re dealt with in the game of life.
Director Katrinah Lewis, associate artistic director of TheatreLAB, acknowledged the complicated layers that overlap one another thematically within this show. When asked whether this would be considered a “race play,” Lewis thoughtfully said, “I think that race is always a motif because of who we are and our culture and because race is so important in America.” The choice of making the two main characters black highlights the universal yet important paths that result for people. “They’re two black men in America that are trying to live with all of the given circumstances of what that means,” said Lewis.
Lewis, Morris, and Jones are all familiar with one another since their day jobs bring them together as actors in Colonial Williamsburg. “We come to this process with a level of trust and understanding. In a two-person show, the chemistry between the two people onstage is so important. It was there before we even started.” The amount of affection she spoke with regarding the two actors was infectious. “[Jamar is] very funny and polished and graceful. His intellect is flowing through him in a very eloquent way all the time. It’s very similar with Jeremy. He’s just transforming in this piece.”
Winning a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and an Outer Critics Circle Award in 2002, Suzan-Lori Parks marked her name in the book of modern American classics. “It’s so beautifully crafted the way these themes come out. The language is so rich and alive,” said Lewis. “It’s done so poetically. It’s finding the poetry and the music in that mode of communication. It’s funny and it’s poignant.” Lewis mentioned how Parks imagined all of the productions that would play around the world and the importance of two black male artists “coming together to work this thing out.”
Admittedly, this is a hard show to nail down. “ I don’t know that it’s a play about race,” said Lewis. “At the end of her introduction, Parks says, ‘This is a play about family wounds and healing. Welcome to the family.’ So it’s not a race play. It’s a play about brothers who are black and whose circumstances are, for lack of a better word, colored by the fact that they’re African American, but it’s really about family and family wounds and attempting to escape the past or attempting to make your life better.” With resentment, childhood trauma, and sibling rivalry at the epicenter of this comical yet cogent play, audiences are sure to leave the theatre feeling the impact of this performance. The given circumstances of these two men, as bizarre as they are, set up, as Lewis said, “the framework for these themes that are themes that we see in a lot of different plays.”
This is a show you do not want to miss. The opening preview for Topdog/Underdog is May 24, opening May 25. Get your tickets and more information here.