Week 2, Play 2: "Topdog/Underdog" - Jan. 8-14

I must admit that this was a reread, but I will defend myself thus: the play was sadly faded in my memory, and it seemed appropriate, given Parks's current project of a year of 365 dramas, to include her work at the beginning of my challenge. I enjoyed this one so much that it might persuade me to return to more of her earlier work (even more sadly faded in my remembrance) later in the year.

"Topdog/Underdog" is about the struggle for power in a fraught binary of brotherhood: Lincoln is staying with his younger brother Booth (their father had a sense of humor) while he struggles to make a living as a Lincoln impersonator at a fairground. It is a play about identity: what does it mean to "impersonate" Lincoln if you ARE Lincoln? History lurks fatalistically at the edges of the stage - do their names link the brothers together forever in a Cain and Abel struggle? Do we all just replay the fratricidal violence of the past eternally? Does national history overlap, eventually becoming coterminous, with family memories? Is all drama a reworking of Oedipus, a familial tangle that reveals itself as a Gordian knot? (What happened to Lincoln and Booth's parents, who both disappeared suddenly, their mother explaining her departure only to Booth and their father to Lincoln - they say - and each leaving a wad of money as an "inheritance.")

Despite these grand themes, the beauty of the play is often in its details, as in Lincoln's luminous, brutal description of the people who pay money to shoot him at the fairground, inhabiting a moment of pure rebellion and violence with inevitable racial implications (not least because Lincoln, wearing whiteface, is payed less money than his white counterparts to play the former president). What motivates these pseudo-murderers, ersatz assassins?

"Winter or summer thuh gun is always cold. And when the gun touches me he can feel that Im warm and he knows Im alive. And if Im alive then he can shoot me dead. And for a minute, with him hanging back there behind me, its real. Me looking up at him upside down and him looking at me looking like Lincoln. Then he shoots.
I slump down and close my eyes. And he goes out thuh other way. More come in. Uh whole day full. Bunches of kids, little good for nothings, in they school uniforms. Businessmen smelling like two for one martinis. Tourists in they theme park t-shirts trying to catch it on film. Housewives with they mouths closed tight, shooting more than once."

Suzan-Lori Parks

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