Review: ‘Topdog/Underdog’ by Avant Bard

“Watch me close, watch me now!” As I watched Avant Bard’s production of Topdog/Underdog, I knew that it is a production for the ages.

Louis E. Davis and Jeremy Keith Hunter in Avant Bard's production of 'Topdog/Underdog.' Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Louis E. Davis and Jeremy Keith Hunter in Avant Bard’s production of ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

Under the visceral, athletic direction of DeMone Seraphin, Suzan-Lori Parks’ award-winning Topdog/Underdog is performed as if two tightly bound, highly competitive African-American brothers are playing a very raw backyard, small court, back-and-forth, 1-on-1 basketball game. It is full of trash talk, sharp elbows, and no ref to call fouls. It is a winner-take-all.

“We could be a team, man. Rake in the money,” says one brother. If only such words could so easily become true. In the way of the brothers becoming a team are matters of enormous importance to each of them–personal and family pride, how life has dealt each of them shit–with life itself at stake.

Parks received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for her Topdog/Underdog. The Pulitzer Prize was for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life. The Pulitzer citation read: “A darkly comic fable of brotherly love and family identity, Topdog/Underdog tells the story of Lincoln and Booth, two brothers whose names, given to them as a joke, foretell a lifetime of sibling rivalry and resentment. Haunted by their past, the brothers are forced to confront the shattering reality of their future.”

Let’s add a bit of a synopsis to the Pulitzer description. Both brothers–the older Lincoln and the younger Booth–are dreamers and schemers dealing with being abandoned by their parents. “I think there was something out there that they liked more than they liked us and for years they was struggling against moving towards that more liked something,” says Lincoln (a brilliant, concisely tongued Jeremy Keith Hunter, with the voice of a con man and the moves of a smooth dancer) in one of his brooding moments.

Lincoln has an honest job “with benefits” portraying President Lincoln in a local arcade. Working in white face and a top hat, he is “shot” with blanks every day by tourists who pay for the privilege–as long as he is not replaced by someone or something cheaper.

His unemployed brother Booth (Louis E. Davis in a brilliant, brash portrayal of a man not always stepping carefully on a hot tin roof) lives by “boosting” (shoplifting) what he needs along with his share of what brother Lincoln earns. “Here I am trying to earn a living and you standing in my way. YOU STANDING IN MY WAY, LINK!” says Booth.

Now they are coping as best they can, living lives of disappointment, full of hurt and pain. They live together on a temporary basis. Booth and his girlfriend are mostly on the outs. Lincoln is no longer living with his wife. The two are left together, two brothers running fast, getting nowhere in an explosive drumline display of percussive words, posturing, snappy threats, and internalized anguish. Each is looking for a way to be free of his brother and of what the world has given them as their “inheritance.”

Much is foreshadowed in Parks’ script and I would spoil it for those less familiar with Topdog/Underdog. The names alone might be suggestive, or maybe not. But what Parks does is provide a Biblical tale as a theatrical experience like few others. It is a Sunday sermon based upon an Old Testament fire-and-brimstone tale–in this case about the horrific state of the African-American male experience in America.

Jeremy Keith Hunter and Louis E. Davis in Avant Bard's production of 'Topdog/Underdog.' Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Jeremy Keith Hunter and Louis E. Davis in Avant Bard’s production of ‘Topdog/Underdog.’ Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The creative team for Avant Bard’s Topdog/Underdog are marvelously cunning. To take a seat at Gunston’s Theatre II, I walked into another world, a dingy urban world full of outside noises. A 2×4 framed structure covered with makeshift cardboard becomes home for Topdog/Underdog as fabricated by scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis and her team of carpenters, painters, and electricians. Danielle Harrow’s costume design follows the living on the edge lives of brothers Booth and Lincoln. Props designer Liz Long adds the right touches with disposable items important to those living chaotic lives.

Topdog/Underdog is a wonder of a script. But it is also a live production. Actors Davis and Hunter provide layer upon layer of singular energy and in-your-face commotion that vibrates against each other. Together and singly, they provide surges of choreographed back-and-forth rhythms of language and stylizations of movement. They are dancers. They are athletes. They are not to be missed.

One of Topdog/Underdog’s most memorable lines asks: “Does the show stop when no one’s watching, or does the show go on?” Do keep this Avant Bard production going and watch it. See it for yourself. Then let me know what you think.

Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with one intermission.

Topdog/Underdog, presented by Avant Bard, plays through April 14, 2019, at the Gunston Arts Center Theater Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington VA. For tickets, call 703-418-4808 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

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