In this issue of CS Grid, Topdog/Underdog Dramaturge Jordan Laffrenier touches on the relationship between brothers Booth and Lincoln and how their stories echo the realities of many. Jordan also offers insight on acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and what she has said about plays’ ability to rewrite history while navigating between theatre and real life.
I am often haunted by the people I knew who died violently. There are three that I recall. They were all young. They were all beautiful. Two of them were men. All of them were Black. Everyone involved was Black. I don't know if the loss keeps me awake as much as the feeling that I am both a part of the murdered and the murderer, a brother of the killer and the killed.
In Topdog/Underdog, Booth and Lincoln, two brothers inauspiciously named, seem to understand both the violence I witnessed and my tie to those lost. Although they hold a special affection for one another and their absent familial relationships, their relationships are marked by competition, dominance, and violence. They know how to put up their hands for you when you are down and use those same hands against you when they are down. At all points, they seem both completely together and completely alone. As I watch them eat, sleep, drink, fall, and reminisce about loved ones, I am reminded of a line from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Getting Mother's Body: "Everybody's got a hole…a soft spot, sweet spot, opening, blind spot, itch, gap…some people got a hole in their head…a hole in the heart person craves company."
– Suzan-Lori Parks
Everybody's got a hole…a soft spot, sweet spot, opening, blind spot, itch, gap…some people got a hole in their head…a hole in the heart person craves company.
Lincoln and Booth are holes in their heart people. In both literal and metaphorical terms, they cover their hearts with masks. They often refer to what they are wearing like two men in a fistfight pulling on their shirts before they strike. Suzan-Lori Parks has said in interviews that the play "Has a lot to do with the artifice of everyday life, with the performative aspects of life, with the masks we wear, with the characters who are between a rock and hard place." Lincoln works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator; in an honest moment, he states, "It's pretty dark to keep the illusion of the whole thing."
...so much history has been unrecorded, disremembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to –through literature and the special, strange relationship between theatre and real-life– locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear bones sing, write it down.
– Suzan-Lori Parks
Suzan-Lori Parks, perhaps America's greatest living playwright, premiered Topdog/Underdog in 2001 with Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, directed by George C. Woolfe. At the time, critics noted it as being more mainstream than her previous work because the play does not revise history, nor does it break form. In dramatis personae, the play is described as taking place "Here and now." But is this actually a departure?
Parks has asserted that she uses theatre as "A way of creating and rewriting history...Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to 'make' history - that is because so much history has been unrecorded, disremembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to –through literature and the special, strange relationship between theatre and real-life– locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear bones sing, write it down."
The bones that Parks has dug up are still with us singing, but so is their history. History is always with us. The inheritance we receive (Inheritance seems to be an accidental theme this year at CS) isn't always physical, and sometimes it resembles what we lose rather than what we gain. Booth and Lincoln hold history with them and seem to suffer from a type of determinism that has them sharing one room, one bed, and one chair and desperately needing room for two.
This show is as much about violence as it is about healing. We can take what we get from it, create and rewrite, dig up bones and sob, and write it all down. Suzan-Lori Parks' talent is her ability to hold both the living and the dead together and make them sing.
Tickets to Topdog/Underdog is now on sale.
On Stage September 22 - October 8, 2023.