Watch the cards closely. Pick a red card you pick a loser. Pick another red card you pick the other loser. But pick a black card and you pick a winner. And picking to see the Baltimore area of premier of Susan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-Winning Topdog/Underdog at Everyman Theatre is certainly a winning card in anyone’s book.
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, this edgy modern drama is the story of two African-American brothers struggling through the streets of New York City just trying to survive. Learning the game of street hustling at a young age after being abandoned by their parents, Booth and Lincoln traverse the darkly funny waters of family grievances, racism, and the bonds of brotherhood while turning card tricks in the alley. Lincoln becomes his namesake’s impersonator while his younger brother Booth tries to learn the tricks of the card trade. This gripping realistic drama keeps you fully engaged from the flashy start to the climactic explosion of an ending.
Scenic Designer James Fouchard draws a two-fold focus in his design work, highlighting the urban feel of back alley New York City while blending the focus of Lincoln’s iconic image into the graffiti art of the walls. Fouchard’s set in a sense is a character of its own, a presence upon the stage that infiltrates each scene. The ever present eyes of the on-looking Lincoln blurred into the wall mural of spray-tags and crumbling bricks flows seamlessly into the interior of the small one room apartment the brothers’ share. With precision in Fouchard’s detailed work, from the peeling moldering wallpaper and the grungy window grime the place reflects the rundown tragedies echoed in the character’s lives.
Director Jennifer L. Nelson draws the production’s focus to the intricately woven lives of the characters and their vast differences as well as their similarities. There are moments in the production where the text becomes purposefully repetitive and Nelson coaxes an almost identical sound in diction and enunciation, tempo, and rhythm from both performers, allowing the shared use of these lines to draw not only a parallel between them but to draw them closer together as brothers. Nelson’s unabashed approach to making full use of every inch of Fouchard’s incredible set brings the production full circle, an emotionally as well as spatially filling performance.
Both characters have rich defining moments that separate them from each other but some of the most compelling and riveting events in the production are the moments where they are revealed to be more alike than either would ever care to admit. Being caught in the past is a strong resonating tie that tethers both of the characters not only to each other but to the trials and tribulations they have endured thus far on their life’s journey; stunningly poignant subject matter for all who are watching.
Booth (Eric Berryman) finds his past more intricately wrapped around their collective past, whereas Lincoln (Kenyatta Rogers) spends a good deal of his nostalgic yearning in broader strokes of his individual experiences. But the pair share a keen sense of how tightly bound their lives were and still are throughout the production.
Berryman is easily identifiable as a slick character with a twitchy slightly spastic edge to his persona. There is a perpetual motion about his character, often executed in the frantic rhythms of his speech — especially when trying to throw cards — and from time to time in his ever-pacing physicality. Some of Berryman’s finest work in this production comes from his cocky attitude regarding women, flapping his gums and talking the big game with a confident air that could easily outshine the sun. Mastering the dynamic nature of this deeply layered character is no simple feat and Berryman does so to a level of perfection that is amazing; revealing darker and much more haunting layers closer to the play’s mind-blowing conclusion.
Rogers, despite being wildly hilarious, portrays Lincoln with a strangely tranquil sense of inner peace that often radiates right off his lips in various moments of idly waxing on the slightly poetic side of life. The utter jaw-clenching rawness that comes spewing forth when he begins to relive what it is like to be shot at his job as presidential impersonator is both harrowing and chilling in a most indescribable manner. As he says “a brother playing Lincoln is a stretch for anyone’s imagination,” but he executes the role with a commanding stage presence, stealing the attention of every audience member every time he speaks.
Both Berryman and Rogers bring fantastical physical energy to their characters, keeping them lively and ever-present in the current moment on stage, even when discussing the potential of a future or reliving moments and memories of their past. Act II provides both of these talented actors with the chance to unleash physical comedy into the production and the results are met with uproarious laughter. Their working relationship is a tribute to their true understanding of the nature of the character’s dysfunctional brotherhood. Together the pair are unstoppable as they race this dramatic tale to the finish line, leaving no card — no matter how dark — unturned.
It’s a winning bet any way you look at it, the only way you lose is if you miss seeing Topdog/Underdog at Everyman Theatre.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.