Cain Is Not Abel 

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog at the Taper

Thursday, Feb 19 2004
Photo by Chris Bennion

“Ezekiel cried, ‘Dem dry bones/Oh hear the word of the Lord.’”

She says she lives in Venice, California, overlooking the beach, and when she surfs, ocean water weighs down her thick braids. Yeah, right: happy-go-lucky surfer girl. The truth is, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks hangs around cemeteries. I don’t know who, but somebody saw her in the moonlight scraping up dirt. This woman’s always digging up bones, and she never uses a shovel or even wears gloves. It’s terrible. You can see the soil right there under her nails, in her playwriting, as well as in her enchanting first novel, Getting Mother’s Body (2003), which was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Grave robbers, the both of them, writing stories about carting corpses all over the place.

Here’s what’s even stranger: It isn’t enough for Parks to trouble the dead; she then holds their bones up to the moonlight, the stage light — sometimes it’s just a piece of flint, a made-up word, sometimes it’s a hip joint, a phrase, a connector, almost recognizable. And in the light, something happens, sort of an evocation. As the song says, “Dem bones gonna rise again.” And they do, right there on the stage like in Dr. Faustus, bringing with them what we like to call history — that inexplicable assemblage of what was recorded, what was remembered, what was forgotten, what was invented and what was eventually twisted into American mythology.

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In her 2002 Pulitzer Prize–winning Topdog/Underdog (now at the Taper), Parks is partly kidding when she does all this, making jokes, like naming her two washed-out hustlers Lincoln and Booth.

“I wasn’t rubbing my hands together and crafting meaning and metaphor,” Parks told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last year. “Actually, I was just talking to a friend, saying something stupid, and then I thought, ‘Oh, two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, ha ha, that’d be funny. I gotta go home and write. Okay, bye.’ That’s how it was.”

Lincoln and Booth are two black brothers living in a hovel, sans running water and heat, somewhere around Harlem, or a place she calls “here” and “now.” They’re not proverbial siblings, they’re biological ones, like Cain and Abel, at least they may be, or think they are. Of course, maybe they’re not — their mother and father both slept around. The answer is unknowable. This gag’s on you.

Lincoln (Harold Perrineau) arrives in whiteface, stovepipe hat and an Abe-like fake beard (mistaken for a rat on the floor in one drunken stupor), wearing a tattered jacket. He used to hustle cards in roving three-card-monte scams, but after a partner was shot, he decided to go straight — which means working in a carnival, portraying his namesake in an arcade where customers pay to assassinate him with a blank gun, one after another, day after day. This, Lincoln describes as “a sit-down job with benefits.” Adding to his humiliation, his job is now in jeopardy. The carny boss is thinking of replacing him with a wax dummy. All of which does not invigorate Lincoln with much self-confidence or incentive to be as honest as his name implies. But the guy is wrestling, in earnest, with his soul, or with whatever’s left of it. He’s like Willy in Death of a Salesman, or Carlito in Carlito’s Way, struggling to stay on the straight and narrow when the landscape is all crooked.

Kid brother Booth (Larry Gilliard Jr.) shoplifts for a living and harbors many delusions — that he’s getting his act together, that an offstage beauty named Amazing Grace wants to marry him, that he’s as dexterous with the cards as his older brother, and that Lincoln will quit his, yes, dead-end job so the pair can make their fortune as cardsharp con artists. Stacked beneath Booth’s bed are semen-coated copies of Black Tail porn mags. “I’m hot,” Booth explains. “I need constant sexual release. If I wasn’t taking care of myself by myself . . . I’d be out there doing who knows what, shooting people and shit. Out of a need for unresolved sexual release.”

Truth is, even with his sexual release, Booth is out there shooting people and shit. He is, after all, named after a rather famous killer. Joke or no joke, American mythology and history coat this dive, leaving a residue of the nation’s violence. Dem bones.

The play is something of a vaudeville with echoes of Waiting for Godot: a two-hour, two-man minstrel show, during which the pair bicker in vernacular about what’s possible and what isn’t, who they are and who they aren’t; they flare, they bond, they express memories, some of which sounds as dubiously credible as their kinship. And they practice the card con in a ritual that has the quality of a conjuring.

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