Parks, Susan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theater Communications Group, Inc, 2001.
Summary of Work
Lincoln has just come home from work to see his brother, Booth, practicing a poor 3-card monte. Lincoln works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, whiteface and all. He takes a lower pay rate because he is a black man, but is happy for the work. His wife, Cookie, left him, and he is living with his brother now. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is a place to sleep. He is the sole support to pay the rent. His brother steals things to live on.
Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to go by a new name, and Lincoln asks what, but at first Booth won’t tell him. Lincoln says whatever it is to make sure he can pronounce it or he won’t ever be able to get a job. This prompts Booth to tell him that his new name is 3-card, because he’s going to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town. Lincoln tells him that he had better practice more and start small and learn one thing at a time. Booth responds that he would learn faster if Lincoln would teach him.
Lincoln used to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town, bringing in thousands each month, but one day when he ignored a feeling that he was going to get shot and then his friend got shot during a hustle, he determined to never touch the cards again, believing that if he did it would lead to his death. He may have lost everything, but now he has the chance to be a new man. He tries to get Booth to see that there is that same opportunity for him. Booth, however, is intent on getting his woman, Grace, back. He tells Lincoln that he stole a diamond ring and that he’s going to get her to forgive him for his infidelity and marry him. He also tells Lincoln that he needs to move on because the lodging for him was only supposed to be temporary.
The next day, Lincoln comes home upset; the arcade is looking at cutting jobs, and since Lincoln has only worked there for eight months, he knows that he’ll be among the first to be fired. Booth has stolen a set of suits and gives Lincoln one in an attempt to cheer him. He also tells him to practice his act and build it up some so that he can’t be replaced by a wax doll. He needs to practice falling and jolting around a little when he gets shot in the arcade game to liven things up so he’s indispensable. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice, but Booth says that he’ll help him when he gets home if Lincoln waits up, and that he should get into his costume to practice while he’s away. Lincoln does so, and practices once or twice, but then gets drunk and passes out in the chair he sleeps in.
When Booth gets home from his date, he tells Lincoln that he had sex with Grace and she didn’t make him use a condom. He also says he gave her the ring and she begged him to marry her. Lincoln calls him out on it and says that he knows he didn’t have sex with her because Booth went in the other room to look at dirty magazines. Booth gets angry at him and just says that he has an insatiable sex drive and that it’s too expensive to hire whores. He does try to help Lincoln a little, but then Lincoln accuses him of being a saboteur rather than an aid. Booth again tries to convince him to start running the 3-card monte hustle and to help him learn to run it so they can make more money together. Lincoln again asserts that he’s done with that life. Still, the cards call to him.
Later in the week Booth has stolen a whole apartment’s worth of things in order to impress Grace for a dinner, and he tells Lincoln to get out of the house and that he’ll have to move out because Grace will be moving in when they get married. Lincoln says he’ll get out tomorrow, but that he wants to sit in the house. He’s lost his job. He was let go and replaced by the wax dummy of Lincoln. It is 3 AM and Booth is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t been stood up, but Lincoln finally gets him to realize it. They talk about their childhoods as they look through the photographs they have in an album, and they wonder if their parents had it all planned out to leave them. Both of their parents slept around, and Booth saw his mother’s infidelity and Lincoln saw his father’s, even sleeping with one of his mistresses. They talk about how their mother, when she left, gave Booth five hundred dollars, and when their father left, he gave Lincoln five hundred dollars. Each of them were told not to tell the other that they had that money. Both of them are miserable, and after Booth and Lincoln eat, they remove everything off the makeshift table, revealing the cardboard card playing surface. As Booth goes to bed, Lincoln again picks up the cards.
The next morning, Booth sees Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln tries to teach him about the game and the process of the hustle. When they go out again, Lincoln goes and starts hustling again, earning five hundred dollars in a day and feeling like himself again for the first time rather than a man in another man’s clothes. He comes in the home to tell Booth, but he doesn’t see him so he sits and counts his money time and time again. But Booth is there and comes out and tells him first that it had been a mistake and that Grace thought their date was the day after, not last night, so it was a misunderstanding. He gets Lincoln to admit what he did, and he tells Lincoln to try it on him again. Lincoln lets him win the first time, and then Booth says that it’s not real because there’s no money bet. So Lincoln puts his money down, but Booth says it’s still not real because he hasn’t matched the money. He goes and gets the money his mother had given him all those years ago. Lincoln is genuinely surprised Booth still has that money. He asks him if he’s sure he wants to play it, and Booth insists. He lets Booth win the first round, but then he loses the second, and Lincoln gets all the money.
Lincoln laughs but consistently insists he is not laughing at Booth. He tells him how the first rule is the rule that Booth never learned: that a competitor is beat the moment they step up to the table in a hustle. Booth, furious that Lincoln is trying to open his money and take it from the knotted nylon, tells Lincoln that he actually killed Grace. Lincoln, surprised and now worried, offers the money back to Booth, but he won’t take it. He keeps talking to Lincoln, telling him that he’s lost everything, and how dare he laugh at him and try to steal his inheritance from him when he squandered his. He pins Lincoln in the chair and puts a gun to his head. Lincoln tries to tell him to calm down and that he can have his money and it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. But Booth shoots him and kills him. He then realizes what he’s done, and he cries, holding Lincoln in his arms, realizing he has now lost everything.
Discussion of Work
The setup for this play is interesting, particularly because of the way the script itself is written: there is very little stage direction, the setting and time is labeled “here” and “now,” and there is direction on how to speak specific lines and how to add pauses in the space of time (the pauses are marked by the characters’ names in bold with no text underneath them). Much of the language is written in dialect form and hyphenated during the 3-card monte speaking sequences. I am unsure why it is written this way, other than to perhaps first ensure that this play is timeless—that it could happen anywhere and to any set of black men—and to second more firmly place the work within a black literary tradition.
The play explores the limited opportunities for black men in the cities, or anywhere, and what they end up resorting to in order to survive. Even the family unit that they very briefly experience first in childhood and then in adulthood falls apart due to the inability for them to meet societal and personal expectations. From stress from broken families to lack of opportunity for a career to poor living conditions, these men may never have a chance. And the ones who try to change their situation are drowned out by the actions of those around them who feel that they cannot change and that the only option in life is criminality to survive. Consequently, they all hoard what is most important to them, whether that is memories of love or if it is money. All of these issues also inevitably lead to violence, which bursts in Booth when he loses what he finds most precious, not just his money, but his memories of his mother that are tied to that money.
The brothers also act as a symbol of America: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth and what they stood for. Lincoln stands for hope and a push toward progress for all in America, not just white people. The fact that Lincoln “whites up” to play the role of Abraham Lincoln speaks to Abraham Lincoln representing all men, not just white men. Lincoln inhabits a dual identity. Then, Booth is the frustrated man who feels that his world is falling down around him and that the only way to beat the system is to destroy anyone who gets in his way to having money or opportunity. His killing of his brother, then, is a re-enactment of the shooting, but also a re-enactment that indicates the failed hopes of Abraham Lincoln: while he had good intentions, it was just too naive to believe that white people would ever let black people have an equal footing in America.