Edgy, poetic ‘Topdog/Underdog’

Courtesy PhotoSurrealistic and truthful: Bowman Wright plays one of two troubled brothers in Marin Theatre Co.’s powerful “Topdog/Underdog.”

Ten years after it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama, “Topdog/Underdog” has lost none of its power.
Suzan-Lori Parks’ play about two African-American brothers is still explosive, thoroughly contemporary and as old as the Biblical story of Cain and Abel.

It’s not an easy play — Parks digs deeply into the corrosive effects of racism in America — but the new Marin Theatre Company production, directed by Timothy Douglas, brings it to life with searing intensity.

Lincoln (Bowman Wright) and Booth (Biko Eisen-Martin), named by their father as a kind of joke, are bonded, not just as brothers, but as survivors. Abandoned by their parents, mired in poverty and facing an uncertain future, they have each other and not much else.

Both brothers have learned how to hustle. Booth is an enterprising thief who “boosts” their clothes, booze and other essentials; Lincoln has earned a reputation as a skilled three-card monte street dealer.

But Lincoln, after seeing one of his partners killed over a card game, has taken a day job. Now he works in an arcade, sitting in a chair dressed as Abe Lincoln so kids, tourists and would-be assassins can “shoot” him.

As the play begins, Lincoln returns from a long day at the arcade, still wearing white face and his namesake’s long coat and top hat.

As the brothers drink, recall their early years, talk about women and review their options, Booth tries to persuade Lincoln to return to the game.

On opening night, Douglas’ production took a while to find its footing. Parks’ script is dense and elliptical, heartbreakingly funny and filled with the language of the streets. But as the brothers’ old hurts and conflicts surface, the show acquires a sharp, dangerous edge.

By Act 2, the results are gripping. Wright’s soft-spoken, deliberate Lincoln and Martin’s jittery, expansive Booth are well-matched, and they deftly negotiate the play’s poetic flights and emotional hairpin turns.

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