Considering fewer than three out of every 100 Orange Countians refer to themselves as African-American, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, it's unlikely you'll see many black faces in your typical OC theater audience. But there's one place they're even rarer to spot: in a play written by an African-American.
Take South Coast Repertory, the county's leading theater and one of the country's most exalted. In its 47-year history, only a relative handful of plays written by African-American playwrights has graced its stages, most recently Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel in 2003, Tanya Barfield's Blue Door in 2006 and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson's Fences in 2010. Which is what makes the first part of 2012 so remarkable, at least in terms of black voices: The Wilson-penned play Jitney opens at SCR in May, and its current production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog runs through this weekend.
Based on the latter, there's reason to celebrate the theater choosing to schedule a play that doesn't fit seamlessly with its demographic. No, the characters, situation, language and—most obvious—color of the faces in Parks' 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play are a world removed from the well-heeled, sophisticated fare of SCR favorites such as Richard Greenberg and Donald Margulies. Yet, the power, potency and streetwise poetry of her play make it every bit as astonishing as any of the sublimely talented writers SCR has dutifully trotted out over the years.
It's a two-character play that takes place in the dingy New York City apartment rented by Booth, a small-time thief and aspiring hustler. Booth's brother, Lincoln, has been dumped by his wife and is crashing with his younger sibling. He works at an arcade, "performing" as a white-faced Abraham Lincoln. Performing is in quotes, since all Linc does all day is sit in a chair and get shot in the head with a cap gun by tourists and weirdoes wanting to take part in a re-creation of that fateful April 1865 night in Washington, D.C.'s Ford Theatre. (A day that was one of the darkest in American history and the source for one of the shortest jokes known to humanity: "Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?")
The brothers bicker and berate each other, but there's an unmistakable bond that manifests when they drink and goof around, as well as reveal the pain and sadness of their parents' abandoning them when they were 16 and 11, respectively. But there's another connection: Linc used to be a three-card monte dealer and apparently possessed mad-enough skills to ascend to street-legend status from coast to coast. But after his partner was shot and killed in a con game gone way bad, Linc vowed to stay away from the cards. Years later, Booth desperately tries to get Linc to show him his magic. The older brother adamantly refuses. But times are tough, and the allure of quick cash is mighty strong, so it seems only a matter of time before he relents.
It's a riveting character study that is most surprising in how obviously Parks sets up the brothers' ultimate fate; even though you can see something coming (come on: Booth and Lincoln?), the way it unravels is intensely white-knuckly.
Parks spins the story with equal parts urban poetry and stark, gritty realism, something director Seret Scott skillfully orchestrates. From the way the brothers move to the rhythms and cadences of their dialogue, a window is opened on a section of American life that is rarely viewed on most stages. It's far more the street-smart, constant struggle for survival of The Wire than it is the saga of the Huxtables.
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And Parks' play is graced by two fascinating actors in Larry Bates (Booth) and Curtis McClarin (Lincoln). As the younger brother, who obviously looks up to his sibling, Bates is plaintive and eager to impress, but also envious and hostile at times—which is given more weight by the revolver he keeps tucked into the back of his pants. McClarin's character is more world-weary and beaten-down, but a spark of the drive that led him to street-level legend remains; when it eventually ignites, it's a wonder to behold.
The blues, spirituality, sibling rivalry, broken homes, and the pull between working for a steady paycheck and getting rich quickly are not indigenous to African-Americans, obviously. But those motifs in a play about two poor-in-possessions-but-wealthy-in-personality black men take on added resonance in Parks' small world. It's impossible to think of this play cast with anything but black actors. The starkness of their lives and the richness of their language and swagger are infused with a decidedly African-American street-culture aesthetic. But through this very small tale about two very small men, Parks conveys a far bigger story, one that ultimately reflects on the hopes, fears, aspirations and illusions of all Americans.
This review appeared in print as "Black Like Us: The Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog resonates far beyond its African-American characters."