While the return to the stage post-pandemic has been occurring for some time now, my first experience in a theatre in years took place a few weeks ago. And what an outstanding return to the theatre it was…
The 20th-anniversary production of Susan Lori-Parks’ Pulitzer-winning play, “Topdog/Underdog” premiered at the John Golden Theater on October 20th. Lori-Parks is one of America’s foremost playwrights, also known for “Venus” and her directorial work on films Native Son and The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Her play, Topdog/Underdog follows the story of older Brother Lincoln and younger brother, Booth in “a darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity. [The brothers’] names [are] given to them as a joke by their father. Haunted by the past and their obsession with the street con game, three-card monte, the brothers come to learn the true nature of their history.”
Upon entering the theatre, the audience is guided to their seats by a playlist of hip-hop/rap songs. One that sticks in my head still is Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, the words to which I mouthed as I made my way to the lower-level bathrooms. The songs set the perfect stage (pun intended) for the magic that ensues for the following two hours or so.
The show begins with Booth, played by Emmy-winner Yahya Abdul Mateen II (Watchmen, Candyman, The Matrix: Resurrections) alone in the apartment pretending to hustle people at three-card monte. He’s shortly joined by Lincoln played by Tony-nominee Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, In the Heights, 24: Legacy) dressed as, you guessed it, Abraham Lincoln. The brothers get into discussions about their lives, childhood, financial struggles, womanly woes, and sibling rivalry in moments that are equally hilarious, poignant, and sometimes devastating. Hawkins’ performance is absolutely electric. I found myself both completely entranced by him, believing him to be Lincoln and marveling at the fact that I was witnessing an actor completely in his element. He reaches depths and sadness within that character that pin the audience to their seat, breathless and emotional. One of my favorite moments of his performance in Act One includes a beautiful moment where Hawkins serenades the crowd with an offhand blues song. And man, can that guy sing. Where Hawkins brings the emotional gravity of Lori-Parks’ work, Mateen brings the more comedic moments. As the cocky and entitled, yet deeply wounded younger brother, Lincoln, Mateen uses his ineffable charm to make such a difficult character personable. His syrupy-smooth delivery of such sharp and biting dialogue lends a softness to Lincoln, who so often likes to portray himself as hard. His and Hawkins’ chemistry as adult brothers is felt from the moment they both take the stage, to the haunting final scene.
To avoid “spoilers”, I’ll refrain from telling you exactly how the show ends (although if a story is 20 years old, can telling you the end truly count as a spoiler?). With outstanding performances from both lead actors and dynamic direction from Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, American Son, The Wiz! Live) “Topdog/Underdog” shouldn’t be missed!
“Topdog/Underdog” is showing at the John Golden Theaterfrom now until January 15, 2023. Get your tickets before then!