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"Topdog/Underdog" - A play by Suzan-Lori Parks

Me and 3 Card Monte

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I was a naïve teenager. Heck, I'm still naïve in a lot of ways, but I was a hapless fool during my teens. Case in point: When I was nineteen I was lollygagging around Seattle when I noticed a man tossing three cards back and forth on a small table. He asked me if I could find the Ace of Hearts. I played for free and (guess what?) I picked the correct card.

Then, when I put twenty dollars down during the next game - low and behold - I picked the wrong card. There went my money. The man shook my hand and asked, "Am I good?" I nodded and laughed at my own stupidity. Needless to say, I never played 3-card Monte again.

Overview of "Topdog/Underdog"

Topdog/Underdog is about the men who hustle cards and take money from fools (like my 19-year-old self). But these characters are not as slick as the con-men in David Mamet’s scripts. They are soured, worn-out, self-reflective, and on the brink of destruction. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. This two-person drama is filled with gritty dialogue and age-old themes, rooted in a long tradition of fraternal rivals: Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Moses and Pharaoh.

The Plot and Characters

Two brothers in their mid-to-late thirties struggle to eek out an existence in a shabby little rooming house. The older brother, Lincoln (also known as “Link”), was once a skilled 3-card Monte con-artist who gave it up after the untimely death of his friend. The younger brother, Booth, wants to be a big shot – but spends most of his time shoplifting and awkwardly practicing the art of card hustling. Their father named them Booth and Lincoln; it was his dismal idea of a joke.

Booth talks about his many goals and dreams. He discusses his sexual conquests and his romantic frustrations. Lincoln is much lower-key. He often thinks about his past: his ex-wife, his successes as a card hustler, his parents who abandoned him when he was sixteen. Booth is impulsive throughout most of the play, sometimes reacting violently whenever frustrated or intimidated. Lincoln, on the other hand, seems to let the world step all over him.

Instead of grifting, Lincoln has settled into a very odd job at a carnival arcade. For hours on end, he sits in a display box dressed as Abraham Lincoln. Because he is black, his employers insist that he wears “white-face” make-up. He sits still, reenacting the final moments of the famed president (the “real” Lincoln was assassinated as he watched the play, My American Cousin ). Throughout the day, paying customers sneak up and shoot Link in the back of the head with a cap-gun. It’s a strange and morbid occupation. I certainly don’t blame Link for being lured back into card hustling; he’s in his natural element when he's working the cards.

Seething Sibling Rivalry

Lincoln and Booth share a complex (and therefore fascinating) relationship. They constantly tease and insult one another, but alternately offer support and encouragement. They both pine over failed romantic relationships. They were both abandoned by their parents. Link practically raised Booth; and the younger brother is both envious and in awe of his elder.

Despite this kinship, they often betray each other. By the play’s end, Booth graphically describes how he seduced Link’s wife. In turn, the older brother swindles Booth. And even though he promised to teach the younger brother how to throw cards, Lincoln keeps all the secrets to himself.

Conclusion of "Topdog/Underdog"

The inevitable conclusion is as violent as one might expect, considering the names of the two characters. In fact, there is something disturbingly voyeuristic about the final scene. The explosive ending feels very similar to the unpleasant job that poor Link has at the arcade. Perhaps the message is that we the audience are just as blood-thirsty and macabre as the carnival patrons who pretend to shoot Lincoln day after day.

Throughout the play, the brothers exhibit very shady, misguided, and misogynistic characteristics. Yet, through it all, they are very human, very believable as brothers who have been through so much together. It seems the climactic violence stems not so much from a believable progression of the characters, but from the author forcing these deadly themes onto her creations.

Is the ending predictable? For me, it was. Predictability is not entirely a bad thing in drama. But I was hoping the playwright would give us one more throw of the cards so that I could be fooled all over again.

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