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In the latest production by the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2001 play “Top Dog/Underdog,” challenges the audience with its raw, painful depiction of two troubled men in an unnamed city. A character study revealing flawed characters who are both sympathetic and ultimately unlikable, the play asks the audience to process troubled pasts and the impact parents have on children years, even decades, down the road.
This play will not be for everyone, but then, pure tragedies are never for everyone. And “Top Dog” is at its core, a tragedy. The title itself sets the tone, as do the character names, African American brothers Lincoln and Booth, named after the president and his assassin in what is revealed to be a “joke” by the boys’ father.
Director Tim Rhoze does not shy away from the bitter, disturbing and sometimes downright nasty emotion in the play. He brings two talented actors to the project, both willing to push their broken characters to the edge of meanness while showing the human side and the tragic past that lead to their ultimate failure.
Jelani Pitcher as Booth, the younger brother of the pair living in a basement apartment together, brings a swagger and a hint of obsessive mental illness to his role. Booth aspires to take his brother’s place as a master of the classic card hustle, three card monte. He announces early on a name change – from scene one on, he is asked to be called “Three Card.” Booth is no more, he proclaims.
It is an effective, frenetic, twitchy performance. Booth essentially thrives at only one thing in life – stealing things. Yet, he dreams of what he considers bigger things – love, and card hustle. Pitcher delivers a stunning performance, never slipping into sentimentality or allowing the tortured past to excuse his character’s serious failings. The audience does not like him, but he does not seek anyone’s approval. He stays within character to the end.
Keith Illidge plays Lincoln, or Linc, the second of only two performers in the play. Linc brings a level of hope to the play, hope that – as in all tragedies – fizzles out over the course of the two-plus-hour performance. In an almost nonsensical ironic twist, Linc has gone straight after excelling as a three-card hustler on the streets. His running companion shot dead, Linc tells us he has left the game and found a real job.
His job, though, is donning whiteface to portray his namesake Abraham Lincoln in a nearby arcade. The twist: the performance depicts Lincoln’s last day. Linc sits and allows patrons to play John Wilkes Booth and shoot him in the back of the head. It begs the question – who would want to do that, who would pay money to take on the role of the assassin of our greatest president? It is a question that lingers in the background throughout the opening act, a question the play nods to but never answers or even tries to answer.
A Black actor playing a white president assassinated over and over again daily by paying society – the concept introduces viewers to Linc and also serves as the audience’s only real insight into the world outside the very limited apartment in which the two brothers live. The apartment serves as the setting for the entire action of the play.
The set is smart – a ramshackle basement apartment with broken walls sprinkled with touches of home. At some point, talented thief Booth adds a screen reminiscent of the Walls of Jericho in “It Happened One Night,” providing separate living spaces for the brothers. We wonder how Booth could possibly have stolen something so large, but that is his special talent; he could steal almost anything.
While both actors deliver deep, rich performances, the play is not an easy or pleasant experience. Language is raw, painful and disturbing. The childhood (history) of the two brothers, now in their late 20s to mid-30s, is anything but pleasant.
Tragedy always challenges playgoers, pushing the limits of sympathy, empathy and on some level forgiveness and understanding. These characters are ultimately unlikeable; the audience cannot really root for them. But their story needs to be told, and society needs to know stories like theirs are out there every day.
Fleetwood-Jourdain has shown a willingness to challenge patrons with raw, difficult portrayals of the African American experience, pushing past “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun” toward more controversial productions. While every play should not be as painful and disturbing as “Top Dog,” a theater should not take the easy way out all the time, either.
“Top Dog/Underdog” runs through July 29 at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. It is not for everyone, and definitely not for kids. But those willing to step outside
of comfort zones should not miss the performances of
Mr. Illidge and Mr. Pitcher. Performances have been crowded – tickets can be reserved by calling 847-
866-5915 to reserve tickets.