The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, January 23, 2004, Arts


The Hideout, through Jan. 25

Running Time: 1 hr., 40 min.

It is essential that people see Suzan-Lori Parks' acclaimed play Topdog/Underdog as produced by Progressive Arts Collective. Not only is it dense with racial, societal, and economic queries, it's a well-written, fast-paced, and engaging hour and a half. Using her continued fascination with the emblematic form of Abraham Lincoln, Parks builds her drama around the assassin and his mark, Booth and Lincoln -- here, two black brothers, surviving the grind and push of urban living.

The reasons why this show is crucial to your theatregoing agenda are many. One: It's funny. Director Boyd Vance is clever and balances Parks' undercuts with an edge so subtle you might overlook the moment, but not so loud that jokes become stale.

Two: Although they seem younger than the script suggests, Maurice Moore as topdog Lincoln and Mark Banks as underdog Booth impressively handle the text and story without a flinch.

Three: This story is packed with theoretical gems that make great essay topics. (I wrote one about three-card monte, a street game the brothers play with sleight-of-hand tricks and talk that always keeps you guessing. My vain theory is this: Parks is the dealer, and the audience is the "mark," or the one being played. Lincoln says, "A good-looking walk and a dynamic talk captivates their entire attention. The Mark focuses with two organs primarily: his eyes and his ears. Leave one out, you lose yr shirt. Captivate both, yr golden." For a playwright, the captivation begins on the page, including phonetic spellings and poetic rhythm; the actors then carry that force before a live audience. The production must be golden to get the gold.)

Four: A play is an illusion, teetering on the line between reality and fiction. Topdog/Underdog does somersaults over this concept by dramatically enacting poverty, thievery, and drunkenness, which all are stereotypes and a statistical judgment of the American black man, thus drawing up questions of marginalization, segregation, and freedom simultaneously.

Five: Did I mention how great Mr. Banks and Mr. Moore are? They could have blown the whole shebang if the cards weren't dealt properly or if they were fumbling over their lines. I didn't catch anything of the sort. This is a difficult show, no doubt, and it's so refreshing to know that Broadway, where it was playing in summer 2002, ain't got shit on Austin talent. Congratulations.

Six: I won't reveal what happens, but I will say that those "spells" so mysteriously written into the script are handled interestingly. If you don't know what I am talking about, then I encourage you to buy a copy of the script. Great scripts are rare these days, and this one grows on you, and starts to bug you. It scratches at your assumptions, strangles your political correctness valve, and jump-starts your secret moanings about social privilege within a skewed judicial system.

This play is worth every second. And don't be afraid to laugh, either.

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