TOPDOG/UNDERDOG by Suzan-Lori Parks is not an easy play…
Let me say that again – TOPDOG/UNDERDOG by Suzan-Lori Parks is not an easy play. Because of that simple fact, I’ll be blunt and honest as I promised myself I would be for every article and every review; I went in with neutral to low expectations when I went to see this currently very popular play in the year of its 20th anniversary… and I am more than happy to say that I was pleasantly, excitedly surprised.
Main Street Players had the difficult task of putting up this play right before the Broadway opening, leaving themselves vulnerable to a comparison that no one wants or needs because this play is chewed up and swallowed like a delicious dinner you’ve been waiting for all day.
Directed by director/actor Carey Brianna Hart, this particular production is a much more intimate experience within the 50-seat theatre in Miami Lakes than some grand space in New York. Some might think that the closeness would take away from the possible exploration of this story but in fact all it does is give us a private sneak peek into the lives and cramped relationship of these two brothers, Lincoln(Denzel McCausland) and Booth(Roderick Randle).
This play tells the story of Lincoln and Booth, brothers in a state of roller coaster like tension. With Booth being the younger of the two, he is constantly struggling to break free from the shadow that Lincoln casts, a shadow that he refuses to let go of. Haunted by their past together they are forced to confront what they mean to one another, and how the future comes crashing in through the window whether they want to or not – their names being a hint at the fateful tension between them.
Denzel McCausland as Lincoln (right) recalls happier days in “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Street Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Olimac Media)
The setting for this story only adds to that on and off strained relationship as they share a derelict single bedroom apartment with no bathroom and no running water. Living up to his name, Lincoln goes to work as a stand-in for Abraham Lincoln while tourists line up to shoot him in the head with blanks on repeat all day. While Booth tries to follow his brothers once infamous hustler legacy with a game of Three-card monte, with the hopes of creating his own legacy to the point of throwing away his birth name for the self appointed “3-Card”.
This is a story about sibling rivalry, growing up, the cycle of violence, fear of the future, trauma, love, and escaping what some believe to be “destiny”.
As I said before, this is not an easy play, the characters alone and how differently they need to exist in the space along with the cramped trap filled blocking, would scare most people away, while others fall short of what this story deserves…
But, thankfully, Hart and the two actors do not disappoint in digging deep and inviting us in.
The dynamic between these brothers is one that most of us might know, with the older being the level-headed and rational one and the younger riding a sort of energy that can only come from a person trying to make up for something.
Roderick Randle as Booth tries to summon some of his brother’s prowess with the cards in a scene from “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Street Playhouse. (Photo courtesy of Olimac Media)
The play starts with Booth, played by Roderick Randle, and while I admit at first the energy seemed a little low for the opening of this powerful play, Randle made up for it for the remaining 2 hours and change. This space was his, and he reveled in the language as he chomped down on every single word and spat it back out for us to enjoy.
While Booth might be a firecracker of a person, filled with little brother energy and attitude, that didn’t stop Randle from showing us more, giving us that sense of danger and violence that lives within us and between siblings. Then just when you think he has explored all there is to see, Randle smacks us with an emotional break at the end that has been building up inside him from that first stand-off between him and his brother, letting us into that vulnerable place that most men are afraid to confront out of “weakness”. Randle shows us strength.
In a much-needed contrast, Denzel McCausland as Lincoln was the anchor to the wildfire that is Booth. On his first entrance, I was unsure as to what to expect, the calming tone of his voice mislead me into thinking that the character was unaware of the circumstances, only to realize that it was a brilliant and active choice. Booth would snap and Lincoln would remain cool and collected, while McCausland shows us the hidden truth that older siblings fight against when trying to be a role model for those around them. He had moments of cracking through the wall between them to be there for his brother and to let him in.
These two actors gave me a well-crafted outside glimpse into the sibling dynamic that I myself have lived in for most of my life.
Roderick Randle as Booth (left) and Denzel McCausland as Lincoln share a rare moment of role-playing fun in “Topdog/Underdog.”