Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Can anything good come of naming sons “Lincoln” and “Booth”? Especially if you admit you did it for a joke.

Lincoln (Hassan El-Amin) and Booth (Adrian Roberts) are the characters in a 2-act Pulitzer prize winning drama called “Topdog/Underdog,” written by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Benny Sato Ambush, and currently presented on the main stage of Sacramento Theater Company, through February 17th.

(You will never be tempted to play Three Card Monte again!)

The play had a successful off-Broadway run with actors Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright in the lead roles. It then had an extended run on Broadway in 2002, in which Cheadle was replaced by MosDef.

By all means get to the theater in time to see director Ambush give the pre-show talk, which is one of the best I’ve heard at Sacramento Theater Company and beautifully sets up the play you are about to see.

Entering the main theater you see the lights glowing softly on the beautiful set by Kathryn Kawecki (lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan). As the lights come up a the start of the play, we find it is a shabby room with thrift-shop style furniture.

“Topdog/Underdog” is the story of two brothers, Lincoln, the older and Booth, the younger. The men were abandoned as children by both of their and have grown up as best friends and support for each other. Through their interchanges (which often have the cadence and lyricism of poetry), it is clear that the pain of abandonment has sunk deep roots in both men and there is always something that brings them back to the parental love of which they were deprived throughout their lives. They are unable to trust anyone, as a result, even each other.

Both men are struggling to find their way in the world. Lincoln, having been thrown out of the house by his ex-wife is sleeping in a recliner in his brother’s room in a seedy boarding house. There is no bathroom; it is down the hall. Linc pays the rent, as he is the only brother with regular employment. He works at a local arcade, where he dresses as Abraham Lincoln (which includes covering up his dark skin with white make-up) and lets customers pretend to shoot him with a cap gun. In former days, Linc was a champion of the card game, Three-card Monte and could bring home hundreds of dollars a day which he’d bilked off of unsuspecting customers on the street. But he’s trying to become an honest man and has sworn off the cards. (“There’s more to me than that. There’s more to life.”)

Booth’s specialty is shoplifting. He can steal almost anything, from clothing to jewelry to large pieces of silverware. But he longs for Linc’s success with Three-card Monte and practices the banter and throwing the cards endlessly. He changes his name to “Three-Card.” He begs Linc for lessons and longs for the two of them to be partners in the game. He chides Lincoln for “dressing up like some dead white man” in order to make a living. Linc feels Booth is too bumbling to ever be a success at the con game.

As the play progresses towards its inevitable conclusion, there are mounting tensions involving employment and a girlfriend, and always a return to the core question: why did our parents leave, and did they ever love us? Are we worthy of love ourselves?

A very poignant scene has Booth waiting for his girlfriend to come for dinner. He has “boosted” tableware, silver service, flowers. He arranges and rearranges things, checks the food in the silver chaffing dish, and cries out for her to come. Linc arrives home to find Booth waiting at the window, certain that she will come, though she was due at 7 p.m. and it’s now 2 a.m.

El-Amin, Roberts, and director Ambush have worked together beautifully, to paint a well constructed picture of love and loss, of ambition and frustration, of the complexities that enter into family relationships and the tragedy that sometimes accompanies intense emotion.

It is a drama that will haunt you long after you have left the theater.

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