Topdog/Underdog review – Corey Hawkins triumphs in Suzan Lori-Parks revival

Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. Booth killed Lincoln. It’s a tale so memorized, so historical, stripped of any affect outside of its facts. But there is nothing stale about Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. The latest revival of the Pulitzer-prize winning two-hander is hysterical, tragic and above all sincere.

It’s a play on the history lesson, Cain and Abel-style. Two brothers, Lincoln (Corey Hawkins) and Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), live in a skint apartment (artfully designed by scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado; cracked mirror, single hanging lightbulb and all).

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Booth spends his days lifting goods from stores and practicing the art of the card game hustle. While he tries to rope Lincoln into his enterprise, Lincoln is adamant about only doing honest work: performing as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at a local arcade, where mostly white attendees shoot at him.

The premise is surreal, with plenty of comedic stretch. But Topdog/Underdog is a fated tale laced with woe. The two brothers share a bevy of trauma: parents that abandoned each one with only $500, trying to rise above their impoverished circumstances. Even their names hold a destined quality (their father’s idea of a joke, says elder Lincoln). Through it all, the brothers’ kinship runs deep.

Parks’ writing is already something to behold. She masterfully navigates all that her work wants to hold. Dealing in equal parts humor alongside shame, guilt and despair, Topdog/Underdog covers the world without running itself ragged. It’s a testament to Parks’ enduring mastery of craft, creativity and empathy.

But to witness her words under Kenny Leon’s direction is to see something truly kinetic and alive, completely stripped of niceties or pandering. The work is ugly, at times, cracked right open, but familiar and loving. It’s a balanced embracement of the siblings’ love and mischievousness alongside their ordained dysfunction.

Under Leon, interactions between Lincoln and Booth remain quick, intimate and above all, brotherly. It’s Lincoln and Booth squabbling over who will bring the Chinese takeout to their makeshift table (made of milk crates and cardboard). It’s Booth and Lincoln playfully modeling their stolen suits for one another, with ad-libs from Abdul-Mateen spotlighting the brothers’ transformation. It’s the shared language they use, the handshakes, the glances, all a peek into a relationship that is so understood but never explained.

Both brothers have a palpable chemistry between them, making their inevitable fall even more devastating. Abdul-Mateen does well, bringing a necessary youth and impulsivity to a younger Booth. He completely hits Booth’s overeagerness for the card game hustle, capturing all that the swindle means to the younger: a chance to change his circumstances, to finally be seen by his brother (and quasi-father figure) as a full-fledged man.

At times, some context about Booth’s relationship to his estranged ex Grace (an absent, but oft-mentioned character) doesn’t congeal by the play’s end. Abdul-Mateen doesn’t quite embrace the grandiose and erratic spirit of Booth, so one of the play’s major twists doesn’t translate smoothly. But even with the hitch, his final treatment of Lincoln (and the instant pour over of regret) is deeply felt, mournful and wretched.

Hawkins is transcendent. Hawkins completely understands the complicated piteousness of Lincoln, the fact that he has to wear white face to work, that he lives with his younger brother on a recliner, the feet of alcoholism and anti-Black capitalism that will not get off his neck. But Hawkins hits the agency that Lincoln has, the charm and manipulative nature of such a contorted person. Whether its tricking Booth into switching ties or hustling a large sum from his only brother, Hawkins invites us in to watch a man disturbed.

The return of Topdog/Underdog is a welcome one. It’s a thorough display of how powerful Parks’ pen is, of Leon’s deep talent. A thankful revisiting of a classic work that should remain throned in the American theater cannon.