Spoiler alert: This review discusses key plot twists in the play.
This fall theater season is a phenomenon with an abundance of Black actors, both new and veterans, taking the Broadway stages. This is the first Broadway revival of Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ TOPDOG/UNDERDOG starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins, now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
This story explores jealousy, greed, sibling love, and rivalry, following the day-to-day lives of brothers, Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Lincoln (Corey Hawkins). Their father jokingly named them the eerily foreshadowing names. This Broadway debut performance is impressive and promising for Abdul-Mateen II, comfortably portraying a complex character with lengthy, heart-wrenching monologues, and the cocky and slightly gullible attitude of a little brother. It is obvious to the audience that Tony Award-nominated Hawkins understands how to captivate the audience, from the perfectly placed witty humor to the intentional and carefully crafted movements, facial expressions, and even a sneak peek into his gorgeously raspy and soulful vocals in the first act.
Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II were meant to be on stage together. Their chemistry makes the tale all the more believable. Although it was just the two of them on the stage, there was never a feeling that we needed anybody else to walk through that apartment door.
The conflict in this play lies with the younger brother, Booth, striving to be a successful Three-card Monte player on the streets, a skill that he has yet to smoothly develop. There are several scenes with Booth alone, setting up a wonky table out of cardboard and milk crates, loosely shuffling the cards while reciting the coinciding rhyme. Every day he looks for a new way to reinvent himself but finds himself constantly getting his ambitions snatched from underneath him.
Booth is a dreamer, constantly fighting to create an identity, doing anything in his power to make a facade of a perfect life from shoplifting flashy clothes to fluffing the reality of his rocky relationship with his lover, Grace. However, his anger and frustration from his shortcomings are his kryptonite.
Lincoln works to build up a new life aside from scamming passersby, a job he has long retired from even though it is hinted that he was far more successful at it than his brother could ever be. He arrives at his brother’s apartment weekly only earning a few hundred dollars for his job performing reenactments of the death of his namesake, President Abraham Lincoln, a scene all too strange as a Black man being shot at for a living.
He sulkily walks into the home every evening dawning a top hat, a raggedy detachable beard, and an ill-fitting suit, with the spookiest part being the white, pasty face paint that his brother demands to get wiped off when entering the home.
By the end of the play, you start to notice that the apartment was cramped and close but the brothers couldn’t be further apart. They are barely making it by with card game money and an unstable acting job, the pressure becomes too much. An inheritance combined with envy and exhaustion from continual failure results in their inevitable downfall.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG is currently running at the John Golden Theatre.