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.
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.
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.
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!