Academic journal article American Drama

Making It "Real": Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog

Academic journal article American Drama

Making It "Real": Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog

Article excerpt

In an essay entitled "Possession," American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks quotes from John S. Mbiti's African Religions and Philosophy, concerning the "living dead": these beings who "belong to the time period of the Zamani [past]," enter into the "Sasa [present] period and become our contemporaries" (qtd in Parks 5). Mbiti describes this process as "contemporarizing the past, bringing into human history the beings essentially beyond the horizon of present time" (qtd in Parks 5). In a series of groundbreaking plays, Parks has repeatedly revisited this theme of the relation of the living to the dead, the present to the past. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, the two brothers who make up the work's entire cast of characters embody Parks's complex notion of these relationships. Two African American men sharing a seedy one-room apartment with no running water, the brothers happen to be named Lincoln and Booth--names given them by their father as a "joke" (29). The apparently arbitrary relationship of the characters to their given names notwithstanding, Lincoln, the older brother, ekes out a living portraying his Presidential namesake (complete with whiteface makeup) in an arcade, where customers pay a fee to pretend to shoot him and where he pretends to die, over and over again. Younger brother Booth ultimately and with more tragic consequences lives up to his name by actually shooting and killing Lincoln by play's end. Thus do the brothers give disturbing meaning to the notion of "contemporarizing the past."

Looming large on the horizon of the brothers' own shared past are two almost identical financial transactions. One day during the boys' adolescence their mother gave five hundred dollars to Booth and left forever. Two years later, the boys' father gave five hundred dollars to Lincoln and was never seen by his sons again. A marker of the dismemberment of the family, money also paradoxically holds the promise of reunification: first, through the brothers' attempt to create a kind of simulacrum of the traditional American nuclear family with Lincoln as the sole "bread-winner," and second, through the younger brother Booth's desperate attempts to convince Lincoln to go into "business" with him as a three-card monte hustler--a life Lincoln once lived and now desperately tries to resist. As a play that investigates, among other subjects, the intersection of "business" and "family" values, Topdog/Underdog stands with at least one foot in the naturalist tradition of works by playwrights like Miller and Mamet. The naturalist obsession with the paradox of human freedom that drives the work of these writers appears again at the heart of Parks's play, and once again money and the confidence game are at the center of that obsession. Throughout the play's often hauntingly repetitive action, money repeatedly emerges as the site of familiar naturalist conflicts between free will and determinism, present and past, the authentic and the mimetic. Through her depiction of the brothers' various attempts to "escape" the money economy and to become money themselves, Parks elaborates her own vision of the dialectical interdependence of these seeming opposites.

In the struggle for power at the center of Topdog/Underdog, Booth needs to believe that his skill with the confidence game of three-card monte equals or even exceeds that of his older brother Lincoln, a one-time master of the con who has given up the game after the violent death of one of his "crew." Yet evidence suggests Booth lacks Lincoln's innate skill. Where the older brother seems to possess a natural talent for the game, Booth's moves with the cards are "studied and awkward"; he throws the cards, Parks's stage directions tell us, "in an awkward imitation of his brother" (1) (11, 83). Booth similarly tries to imitate what Lincoln calls his "patter," or the rapid-fire speech meant to both entice and confuse the confidence artist's "mark"; yet Booth, as Lincoln tries to tell him, is attempting to master the superficial or "outward" signs of a game that requires a much deeper understanding. …

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