Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks

Topdog Underdog play

Topdog/Underdog is a play written by Suzan-Lori Parks that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for drama.  As some of you know, starting in June I’ve been working at the South Bend Civic Theater as stage manager for this play, which opened August 10th. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions putting this show together, and each night we run it, things get more intense. Rehearsals — regular, tech, and dress — have eaten up most of my emotional capacity, thus some silences here at Grab the Lapels. Here are some of the folks involved in the show I’ve been working on:

  • Director: Laurisa LaSure
  • Assistant Director: KC Matthews
  • Lincoln: Paul Bertha
  • Booth: Benni Little
  • Booth (understudy): Jesse Camper
  • Stage Manager/Light Board: Melanie Page
  • Sound Designer/Sound Board: Nick Page
  • Lighting Designer: Jessica Brubaker

Topdog/Underdog is about two black brothers, but isn’t a play about race. Lincoln is in his late 30s, and Booth is six years younger. Lincoln used to be the master of the street hustle 3-card monte, but when a member of his crew was murdered, he threw his gun in the river and swore off the cards. Drinking and womanizing led his wife, Cookie, to leave him, which is how we get Lincoln and Booth living together in Booth’s one-room apartment. There isn’t running water in the apartment, and symbols of poverty are everywhere. The sound designer (I brought on my husband, who majored in broadcasting) and I created cityscape noises to run throughout the whole play, including sirens, trains, car horns, and ambient traffic. There are also thin-wall apartment noises, such as a neighbor’s music, babies crying, fighting, some upstairs sexy noises, and even toilet flushing (the bathroom is shared among tenants and not in the apartment). The setting: here and now.

Booth is terrible with cards, but he’s a great thief. He refuses to get a job, so the only money that comes in now is provided by Lincoln, who has a job at an arcade. Lincoln sits facing a in a booth, pretending to be Abraham Lincoln that last night at the theater, while customers come in and shoot him. All day long, he is shot. Parks plays with history both in the characters’ names and Lincoln’s job. The crux of the story is that Booth wants to hustle 3-card monte with Lincoln, who won’t touch playing cards, so they can live the dream: women, money, their names in everyone’s mouths. Booth gets braver, practicing 3-card monte in front of Lincoln to taunt him, repeatedly reminding Lincoln that he’s bedded Lincoln’s ex-wife and that Lincoln is a depressed loser who can’t move forward.

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Lincoln, played by Paul Bertha. Photo by Laurisa LaSure.

Like a Greek tragedy, the trauma runs deep in this play. We learn that the brothers’ mom cut out, leaving Booth $500 in a stocking. Two years later, their dad leaves, giving Lincoln $500 in a handkerchief. Thus, the brothers are completely abandoned when they are 11 and 16. Lincoln has blown his “inheritance,” but Booth has keep his for over 20 years without even looking in the stocking. You can see more about the play’s themes straight from our director, Laurisa LaSure.

I confess when I first read the play I didn’t love it. There were gaps, things that happened that weren’t earned. But through the rehearsal process, each member of the cast and crew added something to story by making assumptions and using imagination. For instance, Lincoln talks about his “Best Customer” at the arcade, who comes in every day to shoot him. He whispers odd things into Lincoln’s ear before he shoots on the left. As we put the show together, we wondered, what if Booth was the Best Customer? That he’s just coming to the arcade every day to poke at his brother who’s gone straight? Parks doesn’t make this clear, but there are clues that actors and crew members can pick up on and run with. Each time the play is done — anywhere — it can be interpreted differently.

At this point, I’ve literally read this play about 30 times. I know most of the lines and annoy some cast members when I quote lines verbatim that the actors waffle a little (sorry, Paul!). As stage manager, part of my job is to memorize where the actors should be on the stage, which is challenging because we’re working in the round, which means the audience is on all sides of the stage. The director meticulously checked to make sure no seat in the house is ever blocked from seeing at least one actor’s face at all times, but one wrong angle and you see audience members rubbernecking.

There are certain moments in the play that are so intense. So very intense. Last night, one man jumped out of his seat and looked like he was trying to flee (which you can’t do when there are people sitting all around you). The previous night, a nice lady couldn’t quit sobbing, even after the show. I wish I could have told her I sob every time we run the last scene. Imagine how dehydrated I am.

During the show, I give all the sound cues and run the light board. Pushing a button to make the lights change seems easy, but when I’m trying to give cues by following what the actors are saying (which doesn’t always 100% follow the script), or I’m trembling and panting (yes, panting) in scene 6, or I have a light cue and I have to deliver a perfectly-timed sound cue, it’s very hard to get things right. I do my best and have a supportive director.

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Here I am with my sound designer/husband getting read to start the show. Photo by Nick Page.

Topdog/Underdog is a gorgeous play that has two actors, but there are so many ways each man could be played, meaning you get a different experience with each cast. I recommend you see it on stage — but in the meantime, check out this review of our show!

topdog underdog
Our show’s poster, from South Bend Civic Theater.
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30 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with this play. It sounds as though it’s one of those plays that draws you in emotionally and simply won’t let go. And a lot of that (to me) has to do with the right context and the right actors to play the characters. I’m glad things are going well, even if it’s exhausting and draining.

    • We have two actors playing Booth, and they each grab you and won’t let go in different places. It’s so weird to watch! But also interesting. I haven’t been involved in theater since 2002, so it’s been challenging to get back to things and watch all the pieces come together.

  2. Sounds like a great experience. Is it your first time stage-managing? I’ve never done anything like that, but I did once get to sit in the lighting/sound control thingy (I’m sure there must be a name for that!) during a play at the Edinburgh Festival, and I got tense just watching everything that had to be done at the exact right moment! Will you be staying on or was this a one time only gig?

  3. What a wonderful experience! She is a alum of my college and have been hearing about her forever now but sad to report I also have not yet read or seen her plays performed.

  4. Yay, I’m so glad we get a chance to learn more about this. It sounds like a lot of work, but also it’s kind of amazing that all these elements fall into place to create one coherent story. I sense how stressful it has to be, but also rewarding.

  5. This sounds so amazing Melanie! I used to be involved in drama before I went full-time into books, but I absolutely loved it. And I was always in awe of stage managers-that is no easy task, so I can totally believe you are panting by the end of it 🙂

  6. It’s fascinating to read about your experience with this play (and how fun to work on a project with your husband)! I hope the rest of the run went well.

    • We just finished today. I feel odd knowing it’s over, but also relieved because each rehearsal or show eats up several hours of the day, mainly those regimented one (dinner, Jeopardy!, read to the spouse before bed, etc.).

  7. This sounds like such a fascinating play. I don’t know much about theatre, but I love the way that a play will be different every time it’s acted. I have seen a lot of versions of Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and I’m constantly impressed by the way different groups bring different themes out of the same text – it seems so magical to me that people can convey so much just by varying the delivery or staging.

    • One surprising play I would love to see performed is called Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill. The first part of the play is set during slavery, and all the actors look how their character is described. In the second half, it’s decades later and all the actors play roles that they DON’T match. Black people are now wealthy elite, women are men, etc. Everything is swapped.

  8. I see what they did there with the cover work & title. Clever!

    I didn’t know you were involved with a theater production. Not just involved, but the stage manager!! Wow! I’ve never been involved in theater, but I can only image all the fine details it takes for a play to come together. How fun that you brought your husband on board to help! How was it working with your spouse?

    I find it interesting that after reading this the first time you didn’t care for it, but you like the story in play form. I feel like this happened with the book Wicked. I was not a fan of the book, but everyone RAVES about the play.

    • Nick was great to work with, though I had to convince him I was the manager at first because he’s used to being the boss at work. There was also this odd situation when it was important to have a garbage bag on set. I gave it to Nick to give to the right actor during intermission. He gave it to the director to give to the actor. Then no one knew where it was. I told him, “You’re not the boss! You don’t get to delegate!”

  9. Irony: I read this the DAY you posted it, as we had been talking about this exact content the night before and you informed me this was going up. However, in my attempt to catch up on almost a MONTH of posts (what *have* I been doing with my life?) – I noticed there is not a single comment here from me. Odd.

    Okay, we’ve spoken a lot about this already. But I want to know: Who is the Topdog and who is the Underdog? In your opinion, that is.

    I can completely relate to the crying. When I get emotionally overwhelmed, I cry a lot. Like, a lot a lot. In fact, I went to a wedding last Saturday. The ceremony was 10 minutes. I cried for 45 minutes. O_o I’m so cool.

    • Ever since I got married I started crying at all weddings. Didn’t before. Oh, the humanity. I think the Topdog is Lincoln because he’s temporarily out of order. Booth is the underdog because he’s always broken, even if he wants to usurp the Topdog.

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