Avant Bard: What is the experience you would like the audience to take away from Topdog/Underdog?
DeMone: Topdog/Underdog is an incredible play and it’s massive. It’s a two-person play, it’s an intimate two-hander, but the themes and the ideas in the play and the relationships between the two brothers in the play are enormous. I want our audiences to walk away having had a tangible, intimate experience of this enormous landscape that I want to place them in the center of.
What’s Topdog/Underdog about?
At the center of this story are two brothers, who were left by their parents to fend for themselves, with the moniker of Lincoln and Booth—two huge characters in American history, obviously, Lincoln and Booth, Lincoln our president and then Booth, the one who assassinated the president.
These two human beings—these two black men who were left to fend for themselves in the time and space that did not offer much support for them as brown people, and then for them as abandoned brown people—they took to the streets, with this great hustle, Three-card Monte. They had to learn to survive. Their survival was centered around this hustle, at which Lincoln was top. He’s the top dog. He was the best at it, really good, then he had an experience that shook his life, that caused him to walk away from it.
His younger brother Booth sees a vision of them working together to continue their mode of survival. Three-card Monte is a sleight-of-hand hustle, popular in the streets of New York and Chicago, huge cities where people are forced to survive by any means necessary. Because this hustle, this sleight-of-hand Three-card Monte, lies at the center of this experience, I want our audiences to have the experience of navigating the streets and the different hustles that we experience on the street as they walk into this intimate yet enormous situation of these two brothers who have to survive by any means necessary.
Ultimately, the hustle costs both men their lives.
Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer 25 years ago.
Indeed it did win, and it was a huge win at that! No other black female playwright had ever been awarded that incredible honor.
What if anything will the play mean today that it didn’t yet then?
In the age that we’re living in now, black and brown people have been abandoned and taken from their native dwellings and then dropped into these yet-to-be-United States of America. And they’re abandoned here, forced to cultivate a land that was stolen, and then abandoned on that land as second-class citizens, considered less than human.
And so black and brown people have had to figure out a way to survive in a space that is not their own, in a culture that offers no support for them. Many black and brown people were successful in the endeavor to survive and make a life, but then there were many who resorted to a way of life that is not so aboveboard, seedy, maybe even illegal, as a means of survival. They were not bad people; they were people taken from their native land, cast into a space that is not theirs, forced to cultivate it, and then left to fend for themselves. Being brought over through the slave trades, coming through the antebellum South, moving through the Jim Crow South through to the North, only to find that kind of abandonment and disqualification was just manicured and dressed in the North.
And now today you have Trump and Trump sympathizers making way for those who remembered when America was “great.” I don’t know if great was ever a reality for this country. I don’t know if we’ve ever been great, because you can’t be great with a legacy of theft and murder and destruction and dishonor. So the play is still relevant because these two brothers have been forced to live in this space in order to facilitate their survival without any real means of support.
Lincoln stops dealing the cards to go get what he calls a square job, an honest job. What does he do? He dresses up as President Lincoln, he puts on a white face, in a carnival, where he is murdered on the daily, not even in the face, but people come as he sits with his back to them and they shoot at him, and they murder him daily. It is the daily murder that black and brown people deal with, shot in the back by legislation that is backhanded. And now it’s just overt that your lives are ruthlessly taken, snuffed out right up front, recorded for the world to see, and those who were charged with your destruction get promotions and raises and paid vacation. The play is still very relevant.
It’s a long history, and it’s a long history that seems like it’s playing on loop.
It sounds like a parable that people will interpret depending on what experiences they bring to it.
If you asked Suzan-Lori Parks, “Suzan, what were you thinking about when you wrote this play?,” she would say, “Well, I just wrote this play for two men. You want to talk about it being Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, I wasn’t thinking about that. I wanted to create a space where two brown men, two brown actors with a brown director, can come into a room and grapple. We don’t have that kind of experience in the theater where three black men, brown men, men of color, can just come into a room and grapple with amazing text.”
Sure, it is a huge parable. It was parables that Jesus used—I’m a theologian too—as a means of commentary on the issues and ills and isms of the day. What a great parable Suzan has written as a commentary on the ills and ails and isms of today. But Suzan would say, “Yeah, I wasn’t thinking about all that other stuff. Sure, if that’s what you want it to be, great, it can be that. But that’s not what I was thinking about when I wrote the play. I just wanted to create a space where three brown men can get in a room and grapple.”
How would you describe what she gave them to grapple with?
Enormous and intense ideas to fight through! Am I my brother’s keeper? And is it the older brother who looks out for the younger brother? Or is it the younger brother who covers the brother? Are the isms and schisms that happen in a family powerful enough to bring that kind of destruction that we were named as a joke, so we come into the world the butt of a joke? That’s enough right there to fight over.
Then you’re split between these two parents and you’re left with this “inheritance,” and how do you safeguard that inheritance, and what does that inheritance do for your life, and what happens when you’re duped out of your inheritance? Here is the parallel to Jacob, about what happens when you’re duped out of your birthright—what do you do?
Yeah, three black men can get in the room and grapple, but they grapple with these amazing and enormous things. Yeah, it’s relevant today, and I’m excited that there are three black men who will be able to get into a room and grapple.
It’s what she wrote. It’s the reason she wrote this small yet powerful play, so that these men can get together and really rough-house in the room to create something artistic and strong and powerful and beautiful and violent and ugly and raw and real.
These two men who have to grapple with the reality of their lives. That Booth and Lincoln are in this eternal fight for their lives. It is a fight that is historic, obviously, Booth killed Lincoln. Booth kills him again, Booth, who at one point lived as somewhat celebrated actor who had a fall, who is relegated to the outskirts of his family practice, and so in order to gain some sense of notoriety again, attention and fame, he kills the president, who he feels has in some way manipulated him out of his space. That the things that Lincoln stood for made it even that much harder for Booth.
It’s an interesting fight, the younger brother, violent in every way, towards his older brother, whom he was charged to take care of. Booth sleeps with Lincoln’s wife, you can’t get any more violent than that before you kill him. There is this constant fight. “Come back to the cards, Lincoln. Come on, do it, let’s do it, we can do it together. We could be the top, we can run the streets, and we can get all the money, and all the girls.” There is this constant fight, this push and pull. I think it’s the image of these two brothers with this push and pull.
There is something about the play that’s so sad, because it’s like they lack the power to fight the power. That is, the power that is overdetermining their lives, and it turns into this blood match between brothers.
I mean, the lack of education is profound. They were abandoned as children, and we meet them as adults who have not really progressed beyond childhood. Did they make through school? Do they have the academic or intellectual capacity to really fight the power?
Right. They don’t.
Then in the street Lincoln turns his back on the thing that he was very good at, so he’s forced to sit as a target in a carnival. I mean, do they have the social facility to fight the power? There is a lot of lack, and in the space of lack there is violence—I mean, wow, what people do to survive, the thing that you’re driven to in a space of lack.
It’s an unsettling play to think about, to watch.
Oh, yeah. It’s a hard play.
One of the things that’s striking about the script is what a sendup it is of all the posing and manhood posturing that these two guys are doing to each other and in their lives. It’s like Parks has this bead on it, she’s just tracking every beat, what’s going on in terms of their presentation of themselves. This false front, basically, that they were putting up, it’s part of the survival gesture.
One of the real core strengths of the play is Parks’s lens on that.
I mean, it’s no secret in the culture that the black woman has really had to become the backbone of the black family, with the man often not being present, either because of the breakdown of the relationship or because they have to work so hard that their physical presence isn’t always felt because they’re out trying to provide a life, a living. I think Suzan has taken that position as a black woman to create a safe space for these men to grapple with these issues, trying to work through their stuff.