Brother’s Keeper

'Topdog/Underdog' serves tension on a platter

“People want their historical shit a certain way,” says the ever-watchful Lincoln, the more reserved of the two African-American brothers at the heart of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. Adds Lincoln, “They want it to unfold the way they folded it up.”

In this 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning drama, very little unfolds the way one might want or predict. The personal histories of Lincoln and his younger brother, Booth—their father had a cruel sense of humor—prove as thick with pain and regret as the darkest chapters of America’s past. Unless they can avoid repeating their parents’ own worst mistakes, they may be doomed to repeat the cycle of self-delusion and despair.

In a gorgeously staged new production at Marin Theatre Company, director Timothy Douglas pulls out all the stops in bringing Parks’ poetry-fueled, mythically based comic-tragedy to life. Douglas understands each of the play’s intricately stacked layers, and knows how to play all the distinct colors within each layer, pacing the drama, the comedy and the slowly building tension, as if each were at the center of its very own play.

It’s a difficult story to describe. Lincoln (an astonishing Bowman Wright) is a recovered street hustler, a one-time master of the three-card Monte con game. After a tragedy left him shaken, he went straight, landing a job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at a sleazy beachfront amusement park. Customers, we learn, pay for the privilege of pretending to assassinate President Lincoln. Booth (Biko Eisen-Martin, also excellent), a kind of shoplifting savant, is jealous of his brother’s legendary skills with the cards and incredulous at his decision to spend his days letting strangers pretend to kill him.

Booth has big dreams and tells big lies to cover the hole he’s felt since his parents abandoned him and his brother as children. Part of the play’s power is the knowledge that, though these two men are destined for a confrontation that could tear them apart, the bond of love they share may be enough to save them from themselves—and each other. In the hands of director Douglas, the story’s edge-of-your-seat breathlessness, springing from Parks’ brutally honest and lyrical writing, is nearly unbearable at times. Easily, this is one of the best productions of the year.