The Pulitzer-Prize-winning-play, Topdog/Underdog, opened at Canadian Stage‘s Berkeley Street Theatre this week. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Tawiah M’Carthy, the play examines the enduring effects of family identity and how we are defined by our personal histories. The play does this by focusing on two African-American brothers, Booth and Lincoln, who are sharing an apartment.
Act 1 opens on Rachel Forbes’s sparse set and features a bed, room divider, plastic crates that act as a table, a Lazy-Boy chair, a shelf, vacuum cleaner and not much else: There is no mistaking that these brothers are living in poverty. Booth and Lincoln’s parents abandoned both boys when they were teens.
Booth and Lincoln appear to get along, but suppressed below the surface is their fractured, competitive relationship as a result of their dysfunctional familial beginnings.
In order to make a living, Lincoln works as an impersonator of Abraham Lincoln at an arcade. Previously, he earned a living as a whip-smart card. Booth is unemployed, but imagines hustling cards like Lincoln although he does not possess his brother’s talent. In order to appear more successful to unsuspecting women, Booth shoplifts expensive clothing for himself and Lincoln, which highlights one of the play’s themes of the performative aspect of life in which we wear masks in public. These masks are intended to deceive others about our true identities. To support this, the characters are constantly dressing and undressing, symbolizing the frequency in which these masks are donned.
This charade of perceptions is further symbolized by the play’s most significant prop: the three cards. (By the way, both actors must be commended for their mastery of the Three-card monte – no mean feat! – under the tutelage of Card Trick Consultant Scott Hammell.) These cards are used to create illusion and trick others into handing over their cash.
Where the play is problematic is in its negative depiction of men of colour. In all fairness, the play was first performed off-Broadway in 2001 and a lot has changed since then. In addition to Booth’s shoplifting, both men habitually cheat on their former wives/girlfriends as a result of witnessing this behaviour in their parents. The brothers’ lives are a shambles!
Both Booth and Lincoln feel defeatist about their African American heritage. When Booth announces that he wishes to change his name, Lincoln discourages him from adopting an African-sounding name that is difficult to pronounce.
Mazim Elsadig as Booth and Sébastien Heins as Lincoln both find their footing in Act 2 when their characters’ baser emotions surface. I found the pace of Act 1 to drag at times due to the extended pauses between the dialogue and general lack of intensity. This changed dramatically in the second act when both actors sunk their teeth into their characters, bringing the action and dialogue to a fever pitch. Not a pin was to be heard dropping during Booth’s heartfelt monologue about his mother having a rendezvous with her lover. Another highlight was listening to Heins sing in a beautiful baritone voice while strumming the guitar.
Day and night scenes are clearly defined by Jareth Li’s sharp lighting design, which illuminated the apartment’s brick wall.
The play ends on a shocking note that left me holding my breath, while my mind swirled as I processed events. Topdog/Underdog is raw, disturbing and thought-provoking…and not to be missed.
Topdog/Underdog at Canadian Stage Berkeley Street Theatre runs until October 15, 2023. Berkeley Theatre is located at 26 Berkeley Street, 416-368-3110. Purchase tickets online or at the Box Office.
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