Encore Michigan

‘Topdog/Underdog’ percolates at Detroit Rep

Review November 12, 2023 David Kiley

DETROIT, MI–Topdog/Underdog is a compelling and intense play that delves deep into the complexities of brotherhood, identity, and the struggle for power. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama is a raw and poignant exploration of the lives of two African American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, grappling with their challenging circumstances.

The play, directed by Yolanda D. Jack, is set in a rundown apartment where the brothers try to navigate their broken lives. Lincoln (Will Bryson), once a successful street hustler, now works as a Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, reenacting the 16th president’s assassination multiple times a day. Meanwhile, Booth (Will Street), the younger brother, is aspiring to follow in Lincoln’s criminal footsteps. Booth is also a hot-head narcissist who treats people, especially women, as mere props to his own sense of satisfaction and gratification.

Parks weaves a complex narrative that is both thought-provoking and emotionally charged, with the overlay of the practically unthinkable burden their parents, who abandoned them, laid on them with their first names. The dialogue is sharp, filled with tension, and often laced with dark humor. The power dynamics between the brothers constantly shift, revealing layers of rivalry, dependency, and the longing for a sense of control in their lives.

The play explores themes like the struggle to break free from societal constraints, and the desire for a better life, but all wrapped up in a toxic bundle of sibling rivalry with the overlay of abandonment and childhood trauma.

Bryson and Street crackle on stage. They not only have chemistry together as brothers, but their performances in their respective characters are engrossing. Mr. Bryson does a superb job of working with the material to draw sympathy as he tries to straighten his life-road. Mr. Street does a high-wire act of playing a character that is easy to loathe, but with an unmistakable vein of love for his brother. Also evident in his portrayal if you look for it in the writing and his work on stage is the unmistakable signs of a man suffering from untreated self-destructive mental health issues that are probably the result of both environmental and genetic factors.

Park has written a fable, and the point of a fable is to teach.

The minimalist yet powerful set design by Harry Wetzel and the intense performances required of the actors make Topdog/Underdog an immersive theatrical experience. It’s a play that resonates long after the final curtain, leaving the audience to discuss, among other things, if these two characters, no matter what names they were given at birth, ever had much of a chance to turn out as anything but ne’er do well hustlers looking for a short-cut to prosperity. Among the themes Park lays a hammer to is how much environmental conditions contribute to character for children being raised in a home that is devoid of morality, nurturing and adequate emotional sustenance. Sure, some people emerge from these conditions in spite of them, proving to be exceptions to the rule. But most do not through no fault of their own.

Topdog/Underdog is a gripping, thought-provoking, and emotionally rich story that challenges audiences to confront themes of identity, power, and the inescapable ties of brotherhood. It is also exactly the kind of play that The Detroit Rep excels at presenting, so don’t miss it.

Week of 11/27/2023

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