There’s a new Suzan-Lori Parks play that’s distorting, disturbing, and a little too pat. I don’t mean Topdog/Underdog, the new play by Parks, which is disturbing and a little too pat in different and more interesting ways. I mean the one about her. It’s not a real play, but it could be, given its well-made pieties, trumped-up conflicts, and clashing characters. I’m talking about the narrative that makes a Sardou-like heroine of Parks, casting her as a well-meaning girl who was led astray by effete intellectuals championing her obscurity, then triumphantly rescued by those who knew best—George C. Wolfe, Disney—launching her toward ever more beauty and happiness. (Of course there’s a counternarrative, too, in which it’s the Wolfes and Disneys who are the nefarious forces.)
Talk about creaky old dramaturgy. Whether you insist that Topdog/Underdog represents a leap into the realm of characters you can sympathize with and a plot you can follow (even predict), a response to black critics who have scoffed at Parks’s embrace by a white-dominated avant-garde, or a calculated move into the mainstream, you are playing the chump. Like the “mark” in three-card monte trying to finger that deuce of spades in a fast-moving field of options, you just can’t win. Cuz it’s Parks, after all, who is the dealer, and she’ll best you every time for one unshakable reason: She’s a serious, brilliant artist.
True, Topdog/Underdog (like her last play, In the Blood)—with its realistic setting and psychological motivations—is more conventional than her earlier poetic-historical dramas, Venus, The America Play, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom. (And Wolfe’s direction puts the stress on revelation of character.) But to trace some grand teleology—from bad-girl boho to straightened-up (or even sold-out) scribbler—is to deny Parks what we most value in her work: her extraordinary imagination and will to experiment. Indeed, this absurd American propensity for pigeonholing can destroy creative careers—think Tennessee Williams—and obscure the gifts of the works themselves.
Besides, on its own terms, Topdog/Underdog is pretty damn good. Like Sam Shepard’s True West or Athol Fugard’s The Blood Knot, it explores the contradictory symbiosis between two brothers who both need each other and need to obliterate each other in order to assert their individual selves. Less sappy than Fugard and less macho than Shepard, Parks, too, pits one outlaw brother against one trying to make it in the straight and narrow. And like Shepard’s and Fugard’s battling brothers, Parks’s sibling rivals duke it out in a single room, but in a context that yanks their personal battle toward the sphere of allegory. Neither the plodding perversions of South African apartheid nor the dream-destroying decay of the mythic American West, the world beyond the shabby boardinghouse room shared by Lincoln and Booth in Topdog/Underdog is both less specific and less grandiose: It’s plain-old dog-eat-dog, racist, capitalist, urban America. It burdens—and delights—these brothers with the swagger and swindle it requires for the monumental task of making the rent. Having given up a lucrative street career dealing three-card monte, Lincoln goes out to make an honest buck the only way he can: donning whiteface. In an extension of an image from The America Play, he portrays Abe Lincoln in a carny sideshow, where customers get to play John Wilkes Booth and assassinate him with a cap gun. Booth, meanwhile, works under the radar of any spectators: He’s a master shoplifter.
The guys get over at home the same way they do out there: fronting, posing, representing, hustling. They practice their moves on each other. Sometimes the rehearsal is self-conscious—Lincoln reluctantly gives his little bro lessons in the patter and craft of throwing the cards. (The patter, downright mesmerizing, is among Parks’s most intricate poetry here.) And sometimes their moves are deceptive—Booth swipes his elder’s secrets as deftly as he boosts suits and shoes from local department stores. Either way, the histrionics both feed and destroy them. Lincoln, the more presentational brother—always just a wink away from acknowledging he’s only playing—gets a textured and properly self-referential performance from Jeffrey Wright, who navigates Parks’s looping language like a gull gliding gracefully through a storm. Don Cheadle, whose Booth gets carried away even by his own fantastic tales, merges more naturalistically with the character, riding the text like a Coney Island roller coaster, every twist of imagery a surprise and a threat to throw us all off into the nonlinear void.
That never really comes close to happening. Nonetheless, Lincoln and Booth try to narrate themselves into history, into significance, as desperately and imaginatively as the figures in Parks’s earlier works. Pointing out the constraints of his job, Lincoln explains, “People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.” He could very well be describing why some mainstream critics objected to those earlier plays. Though Parks unfolds things very neatly in Topdog/Underdog, history screams and bleeds in this work as intensely as ever.
Past Voice articles on Suzan-Lori Parks:
Michael Feingold on In the Blood.
An interview with James Hannaham.
Francine Russo on Pickling.