Dallas — Whether in person on the sidewalks of New York City or in street hustler scenes from television and film, you have probably seen the three-card monte. It’s a street hustle or shell game, a low-level type of confidence game with cards that if one was good at it, could generate a lot of fast cash. They often worked in teams: a lookout to warn of the police, a roper that helped get people to stop and look, and a shill who enticed people to actually play. At one time it was impossible to walk down a sidewalk in Times Square without seeing these guys, usually with a small crowd of tourists around them. They could set up pretty easily because all they needed was a small table arranged out of crates or boxes or even fancier, a folding card table. The setup had to be small and portable to make a quick getaway from the police. They would fold up only to relocate, usually within a few feet or blocks from their original location. To be a good three-card monte player one needed to be smart, cunning, persuasive, and have quick, agile fingers.
Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play Topdog/Underdog, which is the story of two brothers whose fates intersect over three-card monte. Written for two young African-American men, Parks describes the play as asking two basic questions: “What are we doing here on this planet and how can we get by, how can we make do?” (Playbill, March 6, 2002 with Christine Ehreen). Ed Smith has directed this season-closing production for Soul Rep Theatre Company working in partnership with the South Dallas Cultural Center. This is a strong play; this production should sell out.
Lincoln (Djoré Nance) and Booth (Brentom Jackson) were named by their father as a joke. Their parents were less than ideal and eventually abandoned the boys when they were 13 and 16. Lincoln, the oldest, became highly skilled at three-card monte as a way of earning money to support them. His goal was survival and avoidance of being placed in “the system” by Child Protective Services. Booth wants very much to become skilled at three-card monte but Lincoln, fully aware of the danger and futility the game presents, does not want to teach him. Following a traumatic incident that resulted in the death of one of his partners, Lincoln abandoned the cards and began working a “sit-down job with benefits” at an arcade as a Lincoln impersonator in whiteface. Booth, having dropped out of school and having no legally marketable skills, is a thief, boosting everything from food to clothes and jewelry. We meet these characters as their circumstances teeter-totter.
For this story to have any chance of succeeding at all, the audience must believe the two men are brothers. Otherwise it does not work. Jackson and Nance are convincing. As sibling tension oozes in, we recognize it such that even when it seems inappropriate to do so, we laugh at it.
Parks’ piece has been described as a dark, comic fable. Indeed, she has expressed a deep love for mythology, in particular Greek mythology and tales of the Cyclops brothers. For all of its darkness, Topdog/Underdog is also funny in ways that when considered within the context of family relationships, are understandable, and normal.
This is not a traditional play. Parks sees it as a sleight-of-hand much like three-card monte. The idea of an African-American male working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in whiteface is disconcerting on a number of levels. As Lincoln puts it “People are funny about they Lincoln shit. It’s historical. People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book, not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”
Nance plays Lincoln like vinegary wine. On the surface, smooth with brotherly concern but in actuality, rancid and bitter. Jackson’s Booth is waveringly sympathetic. He tries to continue skipping over the fissures in the fantasy he has woven for protection. Nance and Jackson draw the audience in, giving them reasons to care about the characters, to hope against hope for them even though it is clear they are not on a sustainable path. There is a moment in the play when the brothers turn animalistic toward each other. Jackson and Nance create a sense of uneasiness for the audience without telegraphing the ending.
Topdog/Underdog was written in 1999, but it remains resonant today and in some ways, perhaps more so. Seventeen years later, Nance and Jackson are working to ensure that we do not forget Lincoln and Booth or the hands they were dealt.