Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog, recounts how two ill-named brothers struggle to make something of themselves despite the historical legacy of their namesakes. A shoplifter by trade, Booth practices three-card monte every night, trying to learn how to trick people into picking the wrong card after mixing three of them up on a makeshift table. Lincoln was once a master of the cards, but he's quit hustling for an even less respectable vocation.
A black man, he puts on whiteface and a stovepipe hat every day and works in an arcade, allowing paying customers to play the role of John Wilkes Booth and shoot at him. It's "the most demeaning job you can get as a black man: dressing up like Lincoln, who saved the slaves, and then getting shot over and over again," says actor K. Todd Freeman, who plays Booth in the production at the Alley Theatre.
Critics have intellectually masturbated all over the significance of the brothers' names, spewing forth a litany of technical terms to describe the Cain-and-Abel motif. Yet playwright Parks doesn't think of her work that way. "I'm just not into big ten-dollar words," she told us in an interview. "I don't need 'em." When pressed about the significance of their names, she playfully replies, "It was a joke, like, 'Ha! Wouldn't that be funny?' And then I just went home and wrote it, and I'm still laughing."
"At first when I hear that, I kind of go, 'Come on,' " says David Rainey, who plays Lincoln in the production. "But the more I listen to her talk about it, I think there's something in earnest about that."
Whatever Parks's intentions, the audience knows within the first two minutes of the play that Booth has a gun (and a brother named Lincoln), so the play has received some criticism for trudging along to its preordained conclusion. "It is inevitable," says Freeman. "Some critics think that's a bad thing, because she brings the gun out on page two. To me, that says it's obviously not about somebody dying, because we know somebody's gonna die. It must be about something else. It's about their relationship. There's a ton of stuff going on in there that makes the play really full and really rich."
Freeman sees the play as a comment upon "racism within the black community -- one side of the black community trying to better itself, the other side not trying to and then blaming the others who do get out of the ghetto for forgetting them and leaving them behind."
It's also about three-card monte, the streetwise game of fluttering hands and lightning patter. Rainey worked long and hard to perfect his moves, even bringing in a professional magician to help him with the finer points of the game. "I'm not bad, let me put it that way," he says. "I could get away with it."
And how did a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright learn about three-card monte in the first place? "My husband taught me how to do that," Parks giggles. "He was bad. He's bad now, but he was bad back then. He was a bad mofo."