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 dont know who, but somebody saw her in the moonlight scraping up dirt. This womans always digging up bones, and she never uses a shovel or even wears gloves. Its terrible. You can see the soil right there under her nails, in her playwriting, as well as in her enchanting first novel, Getting Mothers Body (2003), which was inspired by William Faulkners As I Lay Dying. Grave robbers, the both of them, writing stories about carting corpses all over the place.
Heres whats even stranger: It isnt enough for Parks to trouble the dead; she then holds their bones up to the moonlight, the stage light sometimes its just a piece of flint, a made-up word, sometimes its 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.
In her 2002 Pulitzer Prizewinning 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 wasnt 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, thatd be funny. I gotta go home and write. Okay, bye. Thats 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. Theyre not proverbial siblings, theyre biological ones, like Cain and Abel, at least they may be, or think they are. Of course, maybe theyre not their mother and father both slept around. The answer is unknowable. This gags 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 whatevers left of it. Hes like Willy in Death of a Salesman, or Carlito in Carlitos 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 hes getting his act together, that an offstage beauty named Amazing Grace wants to marry him, that hes 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 Booths bed are semen-coated copies of Black Tail porn mags. Im hot, Booth explains. I need constant sexual release. If I wasnt taking care of myself by myself . . . Id 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 nations 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 whats possible and what isnt, who they are and who they arent; 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.
For all its wondrous vitality and jazz-riff poeticism, Topdog/ Underdog is surprisingly derivative. Parks earlier works are famous for using language and time in strikingly original and sometimes unfathomable ways. Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989) follows voices on the Middle Passage and/or a world that is past, present and future rolling around in the same breath. Topdogs 1993 predecessor is a work titled The America Play, which also features a Lincoln impersonator, tinkers with acceptable and unacceptable 19th-century dialects, representing keys to entry into the society at large.
As beautiful as Topdog is, it settles into a kind of linear propulsion and psychological realism that brings to mind an amalgam of Sam Shepards True West and David Mamets American Buffalo as seen through an African-American frame. Were back in the land of impoverished and desperate, gun-toting clowns hustling for junk and yearning for family at the same time American emblems. Mamet pretty much lifted the idea from Harold Pinters The Dumb Waiter, and my guess is that director Quentin Tarantino lifted the core ideas of his movie Pulp Fiction from Mamet. But those plays were all well over 20 years ago. From a playwright like Parks, with a reputation for digging in the dirt, Topdog/Underdog isnt particularly groundbreaking, while the dramaturgical logic of Mamet and Shepards plays is actually more taut and less predictable.
However, just because Parks says shes kidding around doesnt mean she isnt funny: That Lincoln chooses, for his daily bread, to be shot at day in, day out is an extraordinary comment on free will that would leave Lorraine Hansburys jaw dropped in shock and fury. No ragging on The Man here. Lincoln is the man thats the crux of his problem. Meanwhile, the idea of Lincoln getting outsourced by a plastic dummy is about as vicious and comical and resonant an indictment of our free market as youll find. Parks draws the economics card while putting the race card back in the deck.
I wish George C. Wolfes production were better. He staged its premiere at the New York Public Theater with a different cast. Here, it looks spectacular, but feels less so. Scott Zielinskis lights throw haunting shadow-puppet reflections on the dank walls as the tension rises; Dan Moses Schreiers delicate sound design has a siren softly wailing for a moment behind the action, or a car alarm going off after a gunshot, and the actors choreography has a balletic intensity and precision. For all that, from their sounds and cadences, they come off as two brilliant, elastic performers who (on press night) are underrehearsed. This is not a complaint about the occasional fumbled line, its about the requisite yet ephemeral chemistry between the two. Furthermore, Gilliard Jr. as Booth is one terrific comic, but the capacity to kill twice in cold blood, as Booth does in the play, is not behind the eyes.
I didnt see this at the Public or on Broadway, but I can imagine the energy that the Public would give to this play the nearby, rolling thunder of subway trains passing. The Public is also grimier, so there the plays vaudeville style would instantly smack of a penny arcade, a world of imaginings where a puppet show can be a deeply moving experience. The air itself is different at the Taper. The audience may be just as close physically, but emotionally theres a remove. The comedy still plays, but it plays at a distance. The very architecture of the Taper provides more of a forum for intellectual judgment than an arena for emotional involvement.
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The cumulative result of all this on Parks play draws perhaps unwarranted focus to the plays structural deficiencies that would otherwise be covered by Wolfes razzle and dazzle. We get the dazzle, but the razzle is wanting. Without it, the play feels slightly patronizing to its characters, which is not what you read on the page.
When Booth awaits Graces arrival for a long-prepared dinner, as hes changing clothes, we see his boxers with red hearts worn over leg stockings. In the Taper, its hard to tell if hes a clown or just a fool. The poor guy belongs under the big top, but here hes been dragged into court. The laughter comes, but at a distance; its more judgmental, suggesting that his foibles belong only to him, and not to us. I doubt very much thats either Parks or Wolfes intent.
The bones of this play are there nonetheless, bleached by the sun and more or less connected. Theyre well worth a look, just to see what they evoke.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG | BY SUZAN-LORI PARKS | Presented by the MARK TAPER FORUM in association with the SEATTLE REPERTORY THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through March 28 | (213) 628-2772