Last Wednesday night at The Walnut Street Theatre, I attended Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer winning play entitled “Topdog Underdog”. This play takes on the narrative of two brothers, Lincoln (played by Kash Goins) and Booth (played by Roderick Slocum). Already you are presented with a story, a play, swimming and rich with history. If it isn't obvious, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. The brothers in this narrative have a relationship I wouldn't hesitate to characterize as volatile and dysfunctional but the love between the two siblings is still present as well.
Lincoln and Booth were abandoned by their mother and father at the age of sixteen, and left with an inheritance of 500 dollars each. They had to learn what it meant to be an adult before most teenagers their age. Their harsh and unpleasant childhood follows them into their adult lives, which is where the heart of the play exists. Lincoln used to be a 3-card Monte con-artist but he stopped because he saw his friend shot as a result of this. He now takes on a job at a carnival arcade, where he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln and lets people shoot him. I find it interesting that he stops his prior job because his friend was shot but he takes on a job that involves people shooting him just for fun. There is something so haunting about this and it is here that you, as the audience, really begin to see the brilliance of Lori-Parks and the complexity of Lincoln's character. But back to the point. Lincoln's change of profession does not bring in the same amount of money as the cards but it's enough to support he and his brother in their shabby rooming house. Booth on the other hand has no job and completely depends on the income of his brother. He dreams of becoming good at 3-card Monte and when he's not dreaming, he's shoplifting. Booth is a character you can find yourself easily hating but deep inside all of his bad qualities, there is sometimes good. At one point in the play he steals some clothing from a department store,two suit to be exact, but one of the suits he steals for his brother. It's easy to just look at Booth as this “bad guy” but that's not how people really are. People contain multitudes.
What's even easier is to make Lincoln the good guy but what really separates him, morally, from his brother, Booth. Yes Lincoln stopped playing cards but he starts up again towards the end. On a literal level there is a tan folding screen separating the two brothers in the room but is that enough of a borderline? This all makes the audiences questions the moral differences between President Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth themselves. When it comes down to it, Abraham Lincoln was not concerned with the welfare of slaves if it meant the union was going to become split. He wanted the union to stay together. Then on the other hand you have Booth, a man who assassinated the president. He is painted as this racist southerner throughout the eyes and perspective of history books. Even though his actions were completely wrong, (especially considering the fact that I feel like Lincoln evolved as a president and as a person) are his views towards the slaves and African-Americans in general, any better than Lincoln's? But, at the end of the play, the character Lincoln receives the same fate as our 16th President. It's then left up to you, as the viewer, to make the decision on who's the “bad guy” or the “good guy”. Maybe neither exists.
Finally, this is a story about childhood nightmares and how they manifest into reality. This is a story about morals and lastly, this is a story about asking questions. You can never stop asking questions and finding new perspectives, which tend to hide in the dark corners of history.
“Topdog Underdog” will be at the Walnut Street Theatre until June 17, 2012. This is definitely a must see so I urge everyone to go out and support! Click the link below for more information concerning the showtimes.