By DayOnna Carson
Lincoln sighs, hangs up his coat, and removes his face paint and beard. He trades out his dark slacks and top hat for gray sweatpants and a black satin durag. This all may sound strange to an outsider who couldn’t imagine a man named Lincoln wearing a durag—never mind being a black man. However, to the audience seated in Princeton’s Hamilton Murray Theater, this was the beginning of the quirky-yet-chilling “Topdog/Underdog.”
The story follows the plight of two African American brothers trying to make it through life as society and their past continues to work against them. Lincoln, the older brother played by Nathaniel J. Ryan, has a job re-enacting Abraham Lincoln’s assassination over and over again at an arcade that allows its patrons to brandish a gun and roleplay as John Wilkes Booth. His brother, Booth, portrayed by Travis Raeburn, has managed to scrape by with things that he has looted, or in his words, “boosted,” and is always open to any means of earning money.
The mind behind the emotional drama is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for the play in 2002, making history as the first black woman to receive the honor for a drama.
Throughout the production, a multitude of props and small details symbolize important themes. Parks uses the brothers’ hustle, a fast-paced card game, as an allegory for their destiny: Together, their competition hinders their success, and the only solution is for one of them to come out victorious. These elements, along with the play’s foreshadowing—like the characters’ names—effectively illuminate the systemic inequalities of the black experience.
“What I want people to get out of this story is that black men are in pain and need access to healing,” Ryan, who played Lincoln, said in an interview. “A lot of men don’t have access to mental health [care] or both parents, and on top of that, they are navigating a world in which they are suppressed. The main focus is to show black families that we need to love and rebuild the family.”
Ryan and Raeburn’s dedication to crafting realistic, relatable characters through expressive articulation and lively gestures further added to this astounding narrative. Their portrayal of these characters compels observers to reconsider their preconceived notions of the lives of black Americans. The genuine passion radiating from the cast and crew, coupled with the hardworking technical producers, created a sense of authenticity. Director Lori Elizabeth Parquet and set designer Rakesh Potluri did an excellent job bringing the script to life and immersing the audience in Parks’ universe. Through works of art like “Topdog/Underdog,” we can redefine the black narrative, and better understand the complicated strata behind the unique experience of minorities in America.