"Watch the black card. The black card is the winner"... and other American lies
Topdog vs. Underdog is a phrase coined by
Fritz Perls, the father of Gestalt Therapy, to describe a self-torture game that people play with themselves to avoid anxiety in their shaky environment.
Topdog makes demands characterized by "shoulds" and "oughts," and Underdog makes excuses why these demands should not be met. Gestalt therapists often guide patients through an exercise to take on both of these roles. Perls' Gestalt prayer was: "I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful. If not, it can't be helped."
In Shaw's version of
Suzan-Lori Parkes 2002 Pulitzer Prize play Topdog/Underdog, two spiritually impoverished black brothers, are unable to "find each other," absurdly betrayed and doomed from the start in Thomas Beckett fashion by an alcoholic, licentious father who names them Lincoln and Booth, before he and their mother walk out on them while teens. Even more excruciating and ludicrous, Lincoln embodies his name with bitter irony, employed in an arcade shooting gallery, cartoonishly outfitted as Abraham Lincoln, replete with white face, beard, stovepipe hat and frockcoat. Afraid he will lose his job to a wax replica, he asks his brother to help him practice how to die more dramatically and labouriously describes how each day, myriad people, even regular customers, pay to approach him in a dark room that simulates Washington's Ford Theatre to shoot him with cap pistols while his younger brother, Booth, barely exists in a "seedily furnished rooming house," slouched on a tiny cot over a pile of porno magazines, frequently masturbating and consistently stealing whatever he fancies from apparel to bizarre dinner settings while day-dreaming of a mystical marriage to Grace, a girlfriend not present in the play. Booth constantly practises and desperately wants to replace his brother on the mean streets as a three-card Monte dealer who skilfully fleeces marks from their cash. He constantly carries a pistol for "protection."
The card hustle and its carefully choreographed physical dynamics act as the symbolic and acoustical hinge for the entire play, and we anticipate the devastating outcome from the beginning. What's truly amazing however is the visceral strength of the two actors, Nigel Shawn Williams (Lincoln) and Kevin Hanchard (Booth) who literally keep the viewer invested "in the game" on the pure strength of their raw and searing performances. You will not forget Parkes' cynical take on the American Dream that has bamboozled legions of African-Americans from the Civil War on.
Within the sordid confines of what Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) would describe as a "dump," we follow the
existential ebb and flow, each brother taking turns as top dog or underdog, their language spiked with curses and the rhythm of hate, haunted by their past betrayals and their parental "dowries" that ultimately pit one against the other.
This performance is not for the faint of heart; Shaw's Williams and Hanchard embody the perfect storm, representing the definitive con embedded in American society, the fabled "dream" that results in nightmare, particularly for the African-American male. Bravo to Williams and Hanchard, director Philip Akin and designers Camellia Koo and Kevin Lamotte. Topdog/Underdog plays in the
Studio Theatre until August 27.