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.
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.
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. Topdog’s 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 Shepard’s True West and David Mamet’s American Buffalo as seen through an African-American frame. We’re 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 Pinter’s 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 isn’t particularly groundbreaking, while the dramaturgical logic of Mamet and Shepard’s plays is actually more taut and less predictable.
However, just because Parks says she’s kidding around doesn’t mean she isn’t 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 Hansbury’s jaw dropped in shock and fury. No ragging on The Man here. Lincoln is the man — that’s 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 you’ll find. Parks draws the economics card while putting the race card back in the deck.
I wish George C. Wolfe’s 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 Zielinski’s lights throw haunting shadow-puppet reflections on the dank walls as the tension rises; Dan Moses Schreier’s 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, it’s 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 didn’t 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 play’s 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 there’s 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.
The cumulative result of all this on Parks’ play draws perhaps unwarranted focus to the play’s structural deficiencies that would otherwise be covered by Wolfe’s 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 Grace’s arrival for a long-prepared dinner, as he’s changing clothes, we see his boxers with red hearts — worn over leg stockings. In the Taper, it’s hard to tell if he’s a clown or just a fool. The poor guy belongs under the big top, but here he’s been dragged into court. The laughter comes, but at a distance; it’s more judgmental, suggesting that his foibles belong only to him, and not to us. I doubt very much that’s either Parks’ or Wolfe’s intent.
The bones of this play are there nonetheless, bleached by the sun and more or less connected. They’re 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