A Dramatic Discussion of TopDog/UnderDog

A Dramatic Discussion of TopDog/UnderDog
There is something to be said about realizing one's own limitations.
And I realize mine.
No matter how objectively I approach a play, I find myself reading or watching it with growing anticipation. No matter the type of play, they are all a sort of mystery to me where every word, every action, every prop is a clue and every word, every action, every prop is suspect. I find I expect to be changed from the experience: to learn from it, to grow. I read a play as if it contains a message hidden to me, one revealed typically through discussion. Without discussion I am bound by my own interpretations however limiting they may be. Discussion does not always mean agreement-for me it rarely does- for my intention is not to find like minds but to understand the motives, the perceptions of others. But none the less I approach plays with the respect of someone who lacks the patience to write one. Because I have not approached plays as a modern form of entertainment, I am often cast in the role of the uncomfortable dinner guest: still hungry.
My first introduction to Suzan-Lori Parks was a brief one; I was intrigued by this young African-American woman playwright featured on a PBS show. PBS followed Parks for a period of time before her debut of TopDog/ Underdog. I was drawn in to the momentum of her circus of casting, rewriting and anticipating. The camera captured candid glimpses of the expert way this young playwright carries herself with directors and actors she admires. Through its lens we see her sometimes perplexed look at the way an actor delivers a line, the way she timidly, then more forcefully asserts her vision despite quick editing and rewriting; and the grace with which she takes suggestion after suggestion. I was impressed by her.
I was not impressed by the play itself. I was not surprised at the audience reaction to Parks, she seems an engaging character and she deserved the standing ovation as did the actors, I suppose. But I am surprised by the success of this play. I have read the play and needless to say my first impression is a lasting one. Recognizing my limitations, my need for discussion to perhaps glean the reason for the success, the message I am missing I have decided to moderate and narrate a discussion in the form of a brief play. The obvious limits are that the moderation will only be as good as the moderator, but I am willing to take the chance that my imagination will prevail and my subconscious and research will overcome the limitations I have admitted to. So from one hungry diner to another, shall we dine?
Cast of Characters
Professor Meredith
Audra Student, 30-something Drama major
Leslie Student, late 20's Drama enthusiast
Harris Student, 50ish
Riley Student, 30-something
Dana Student, 50ish
Nicolas Student, early 20s
Writer's note: all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to characters real or fictional is unintentional.
Setting: It is early evening on the University of Maryland campus. The weather is unusually warm, the sky exceptionally clear. There is an air of anticipation on campus. Students slowly enter the classroom engaged in various on-going conversations.
Audra :( animated) But did you see those bikers? I mean really, it kills me how indecisive they are.
Nicolas: How what?
Audra: Indecisive. One minute they want to be cars so they ride in the street, the next minute they want to be pedestrians so they ride on the sidewalk, it's crazy. And those pedestrians! Don't get me started! They just walk out of a building and right smack in to the street, they really take that cross walk thing seriously on campus don't they?
Dana: ...my boyfriend and I went to see that play in D.C. I was telling you about...
Leslie: (confused) I thought you already saw that.
Dana: no, you're thinking of the one I saw the other week-with my husband.
Leslie: that's right, so this one is better?
Dana: oh yeah...he's a lot better than my husband
Leslie:-well I mean the play, was the play better than the other one?
Dana: (chuckle) same answer.
Harris: (on cell phone)...yes...I did...well; I said I did...it sounded what? No, I didn't mean it to...I...uh...yes, dear...sure...your mother's coming...I'm sure you mentioned it...right...if you say so...I mean yes, you're right...
Nicolas: (enters, glances at Dana. Leslie glances at Nicolas)
Professor: Good evening class, oh...small class tonight (checks notes...) a couple of students won't be in tonight but I'm sure we can have a lively discussion about Top Dog/Underdog
(Riley enters apologetically, slides in to a chair)
Let's start with a bit about the playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks. According to Bedford St. Martin's Press, Parks, born 1964, Parks has been awarded grants from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has written quite a few plays performed on Broadway as well as off Broadway. Betting on the Dust Commander, Fishes, The Sinners' Place, and The America Play as well as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World and In the Blood. "Her full-length play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, won the Obie Award for the best off-Broadway play of 1990". She also wrote Venus which won the Obie award in 1996. According to "Women of color Women of Words." Parks is Associate Artist at the Yale School of Drama and was voted LA Times Faces to Watch 2000. She was awarded Macarthur Fellow in 2001 and that same year The New York Times voted her the year's most promising playwright. In 2002 she received the Pulitzer for Topdog/Underdog.
Despite winning a Pulitzer Prize, the play didn't always receive good reviews, here's one from the New York Times:
"''TOPDOG/UNDERDOG'' sent quite a jolt through Broadway in 2002 when it played at the Ambassador Theater, so much so that many companies may be reluctant to revisit it without letting a few decades pass first. But Luna Stage here has taken up the challenge, a doubly bold gamble given that in Luna's tiny house there is no buffer zone between actors and audience; if the performers fail, they fail a few feet from the front row.
Happily, though, the two men in this production, Jamahl Marsh and Shane Taylor, do not fail. They give a riveting account of Suzan-Lori Parks's sometimes funny, ultimately ugly tale of two down-on-their-luck brothers. In fact, watching this production, you begin to suspect that the performers are -- heresy alert -- better than the play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama"
The rest of the review praises the actors, but points out limitations of the writing. What do you all think? What's the play about?
Dana: Well the play is about two brothers Lincoln and Booth and it kind of explains their life, their circumstances...how they got where they are. One, Lincoln, works as a wax copy of the President replaying the scene where he gets shot by Booth-which is sort of ironic- and Booth, well he doesn't work but it is his place and he is sort of the housewife, but he doesn't really seem to clean and he doesn't cook either but he does dictate where the money goes. So I guess he's like the stronger of the two, the more powerful. Anyway, the play is about their relationship and how they survive.
Harris: but it's also about how they live and how they choose to live. I mean one doesn't even work, he steals for a living and it's not like he steals stuff they need, he steals what he wants. They had a name for guys like that in my day: crooks. And he wants to be a playboy but playboys have money so he's gotta pretend he has money so he can play the role of the playboy. He wants this girl, this Grace, to think he's the successful one so he steals these big shot clothes and he does look after his brother too, he gets him some-but he steals these clothes because clothes make the man, he said that right on page 27 and so now he's made.
Meredith: ok, so what is the play about? Is it about brothers, survival, what?
Riley: I think my objection to it is it's not real life. I don't know any one like them.
Meredith: who says plays mirror real life? And besides, for someone somewhere this may be their reality. So you are saying it's not real but you mean it's not real to you.
Riley: exactly. I feel like I was invited to glimpse someone's life, someone's dirty little secrets, like the business about them being abandoned and their inheritance, well really Booth's inheritance. I'm left wondering why did the mother leave? Why did the father leave? Not why did they leave one another, that's easy, but why did they leave their kids? Then I have to reflect on parenthood and parenting in America and figure out if Parks is saying parenting doesn't fulfill everyone like people say it does and I guess I don't accept that or like that. And I have to decide who considers $500 to be enough to leave two kids.
Audra: well it is just heartbreaking, it really is. What kind of people leave their kids anyway? What kind of people would choose to do that?
Riley: well who is to say they chose? I mean things were bad at home and maybe they felt the kids would be better off without them, which is pretty harsh to say life is awful with us but maybe it will be less awful without us. Who is to say Parks isn't addressing the American dream? Maybe this is the American family. They started out as the family of four: a mother, father, and two sons. Then there were two. But there is a dichotomy in their relationship where they even play to being...see right here on page...well in my book it starts on page 23. When Lincoln gets his paycheck he and Booth play a husband and wife routine. They rely on one another.
Nicolas: yeah but it's pretty messed up the way their parents split. It's like it's about legacies. Lincoln gets shot by Booth, I mean in real life and that's solved but its not over, Lincoln's not the only president to be assassinated, killed by a fellow countrymen, a brother. And in this play you have two brothers, for some reason they are pitted against each other even as boys, both parents choose one son over the other to leave $500 to and then the kids are bound to be messed up. The parents left because they were working hard to maintain a house, a family: the American dream and it still wasn't enough. They were still struggling against poverty, against each other and it was just too much.
Riley: about the legacy thing. Using the names, Lincoln and Booth, with a stretch I can say ok, Lincoln is known for having emancipated the slaves and Booth killed him. In the play, Lincoln was trying to emancipate himself and Booth killed him. That's the parallel I get and again, that's a stretch.
Dana: I wonder at the relationships with women in the play.
Leslie: oh yes, good point, they are motherless and now really they are still without women in their lives.
Dana: well, I wonder at the impression of Grace, I get the impression that she is not as serious as either Booth believes she is or as he pretends she is. And I wonder, if he is just reading her wrong or if he is leading us, well Lincoln, wrong.
Leslie: ah yes, I see. There really are no positive relationships in the play. But who is to say in life that every relationship we have is really as we see it? Like with Cookie, why would Booth sleep with his brother's wife?
Riley: why would she sleep with him?
Dana: well that's easy...he offered something Lincoln couldn't.
Nicolas: and he forgave his brother but couldn't forgive his wife (glances long at Leslie and even longer at Dana)
Meredith: maybe he didn't forgive him, one brother is dead and perhaps part of the title is that at any time it could have ended up being the other brother dead.
Harris: I saw the title in the cards. Ok, I used to see guys playing card games on street corners all the time, it was a hustle...a way to make money. The guy with the big talk got the girls. Card sharks aren't lucky, they're cons. So card games are always stacked in their favor that means the deck is stacked against you. You gotta know what you have, what the other guy has, you've gotta know the odds...the rules. Even then, that only stacks things in your favor but you can't really cheat at it, well you can but you end up dead that way. So you stack the cards in your favor and the odds are you're gonna win, and bam! Out of no where someone else wins. Now you know they either cheated you or you cheated you but either way you lose. That's life. You can plan and plot things, you can stack things in your favor: school, money, family, you know things. Odds are you'll win or succeed in this game of life but without warning, bam! Things could change at any time. A short cut here, a short cut there, an unexpected event and you could end up a failure. So Lincoln knows the cards but he has given up on them for a while because his friend died. Cards were how he made a living and how he lived; I mean he was more animated, more successful when he knew the cards, when he could rely on them. Now Booth wants fast money, there's no denying that but he also wants to have some control over his circumstances and cards might give him that but at first, Lincoln is holding out on him. He's reluctant to have him lead that sort of life, to play those sorts of odds but he does it. He teaches his little brother and bam! His little brother beats him at it, or at least gets good enough to think he can beat him at it and then bam! Lincoln comes back and still wins. Booth is humiliated and angry and acts, and then bam! He reacts by killing him or by stacking the odds back in his favor.
Meredith: excellent, excellent! Is this a play about race?
(All except Riley): absolutely, yes.
Riley: Now I wonder at that. Why is it a play about race? In my version of the play it doesn't say anything about the race of the actors. So it is assumed because the playwright is black that this play cuts a slice from black America. I think it is an American play in that it strikes at the American dream and how people are unequipped to attain it. If I hadn't seen it played by black actors on PBS, I probably would have pictured them black because of Parks but I wonder at why.
Meredith: would this play work with colorblind casting?
Audra: oh absolutely. That would add to it, of course, then the play would be about race. I mean if the brothers were played by say Lorenz Tate and Keanu Reeves then we would be wondering if the parents chose one brother over the other because of race; it would just add a different dynamic, another complication.
Meredith: but could the play work with a Chinese cast or a Native American cast?
Riley: yes I don't see why not. Most cultures feel the pull toward the American dream and the same string that pulls them is the same string that tightens around their purses.
Meredith: ok, what makes this play an American drama?
Nicolas: Well there is the element of race, if it is there and I think it is, because what about when Booth questions that Lincoln, a black man, is playing a white president?
Riley: oh I admit it is there, but I object to race existing as an element or a dynamic, I think it just is. Anyway, I like that Lincoln and Booth don't have the "sense of entitlement" of other characters in other plays. I mean they admit their life pretty much sucks as it is and while they are not powerless to fix that, they are powerless to fix it but so much. So despite the ideal that people can move in and out of social class easily in America, perhaps what makes this play an American drama is that Parks points out that the reality differs from the ideal.
Dana: to me, the sexual elements make this an American drama. Parks kind of deals head on with the male libido. She deals with the female sense of stability over sex versus male's sense of sex over stability.
Leslie: the play deals with family and the misconception of family unity and how that varies for people, to use what Riley said, it invites you in to their lives and sort of faces you to stay without asking you to choose sides.
Harris: this play is as American as they come. It has betrayal, adultery, gambling, sex, murder, poverty...what more can you ask for in one play?
Meredith: ok why this play? Why was it published?
Audra: because it gives a voice to what some people are thinking. I mean people feel every day that this is not what they bargained for, like they've been bamboozled. Sold something that just doesn't work any more. The ideal of family and tradition may not be suited for 2006, the family has changed, the economy has changed it. So many people can recognize their sense of bewilderment.
Nicolas: it's like someone changed the rules and no one knows what they are any more. People are succeeding who, well shouldn't be. I mean the college graduate with good credit, the good guy...we all know the good guy always ends up losing. He doesn't get the girl (glances at Dana), he doesn't get the corner office and he can't even afford a house any more.
Leslie: you mean he lives at home with his parents? (Shocked)
Nicolas: He might, she might...I mean the Universal "he." Somewhere along the lines the things we were told matter: rules, fidelity, trust, investment, somewhere they stopped guaranteeing success.
Dana: Even kids, they used to be good for the economy, good for the family image. They meant stability and they took care of their parents in their old age but now, parents are taking care of kids longer because kids can't or won't get good paying jobs.
Nicolas: well that's just it. We were taught you go to college, you get good grades, you graduate, you get a good job. Now people graduate and can't even get jobs in their majors but people without the degrees, they are the success stories.
Harris: but not everyone goes the traditional route. College isn't for everybody. Look at us, we are all adults going back to college because we still believe in the old rules. Someone changed them, we know they are changed but we are still here waiting for them to what? Change back?
Riley: maybe we are just stacking the cards, the odds in our favor. Maybe we do still believe that hard work pays off, that loyalty gets rewarded. I have to believe it. But I also believe in the gamble, not in the making the quick buck the hard way, because face it, life on the streets is hard. But I believe in taking a risk to get what I want and having the foundation of education, investments, common sense and morals to back up whatever I choose.
Leslie: so the play was published and performed because it was the right time to do it. because America is tired of the "get rich quick scheme" and the overnight millionaire?
Riley: and because Americans are tired of someone else stacking the cards.
I have a better understanding of the elements of this play and perhaps of other plays I will read. The value of the play may not be to entertain but to encourage thought, to provoke conversation, to stimulate imagination and to encourage activism. We are faced with reality every day and every day we have an opportunity, an obligation to do something about it. People like Lincoln and Booth are failed by the school system, by family and by society in fiction as well as in life but reading about them doesn't make them real for many of us. Seeing and hearing them breathes life in to them, in to their circumstance and makes them, us. I have gained a better appreciation of Suzan-Lori Parks through writing my discussion. I am proud to say I am again impressed by her.

Works Cited
Genzlinger, Neil. "Makes Them Want to Holler"New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: May 8, 2005. pg. 14NJ.11. ProQuest. 6 May 2006. http://proquest.umi.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu
Parks, Suzan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theatre Communications Group, Inc.: New York, NY. 1999
"Suzan-Lori Parks Biography." Bedford St. Martins. N/D. 6 May 2006.
Weaver, Angela E. "Suzan-Lori Parks." Women of Color Women of Worlds .n/d. 6 May 2006. http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~cybers/parks2.html 


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