By Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis

Reviewed by Keith Waits.

Entire contents copyright © 2013, Keith Waits, all rights reserved.

Brian Lee West and Keith McGill in rehearsal.
Photo courtesy of Actor’s Choice.

As a new year begins and stages that have been dark begin filling with exciting new productions, Louisville audiences are now presented with another important American play. Topdog/Underdog follows the recent ATL production of Sam Shepard’s True West, which also charts a difficult and destructive fraternal relationship in a confining space. Suzan Lori-Parks’ play won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002; and while it may be imagined that it owes something to the earlier Shepard work, Ralph Ellison is perhaps the more important influence.

Essentially, Topdog/Underdogis a microcosmic exploration of the same theme of anonymity in the identity of the African-American male that Ellison so profoundly develops in his novel The Invisible Man. The brothers in Topdog were named “Lincoln” and “Booth” as a joke by their father, but the historical monikers symbolize the lack of a singular identity for these two men. Lincoln even works in an arcade attraction portraying Abraham Lincoln in a scene depicting his assassination. The fact that he worries he may be replaced by a mannequin underscores the disposable and interchangeable roles people of color have been forced to play in American culture.

This is my second encounter with the play, and the thoughtful reading it is given here allowed me to more fully appreciate the depth and complexity of the text. Keith McGill’s Lincoln at first takes great pride in his performance in the arcade but eventually is disgusted by its meaning. And in that shift we can find the arc of the black character in popular entertainment, as strong and independent artists emerged from the restraints of stereotype and caricature, tidily summarized with such subtlety and understanding as to fully explain that Pulitzer Prize.

McGill brings a range of emotion to the elder brother – alternately earnest and bitter, funny and wounded – that contrast effectively against Brian Lee West’s younger and less experienced Booth. There is a callow and angry self consciousness in West’s performance that works to his benefit. As the action proceeds and the two brothers alternate displaying their skills at “throwing the cards” in three-card monte, West’s obvious and arch manner gives way to McGill’s smooth and confident technique, the stylistically different acting approaches revealing the sharp distinctions between the characters. The smart, dedicated work from these two actors does much to mine the wealth of insight contained in the deceptively layered script.

The mission of Actor’s Choice is, in part, to afford directors the opportunity to mount productions of theatrical works they feel passionate about. Director Kathi E.B. Ellis suggests the relevance of the play to the current state of affairs in her program notes, a point she wisely avoids underscoring in the production in any obvious way. She lets the story work on its own terms so that the audience can make those connections for themselves. For any truly great play will always speak to the times without forcing the issue.


January 10-20

Actor’s Choice

At The Henry Clay Theatre

604 S. Third Street

Louisville, KY 40202