“People like they historical shit in a certain way. They like it to unfold they way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks isn’t big on folding things up neatly. And despite what people may usually like, she serves up they historical shit in a way that earns plaudits and Pulitzers, particularly in the play that contains the above quote, Topdog/Underdog.
When the play opened on Broadway in 2002, the year following its off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theatre, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that it ”vibrates with the clamor of big ideas, audaciously and exuberantly expressed” and compared it to Ralph Ellison’s celebrated novel Invisible Man as an examination of “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States, the masks that wear the men as well as vice versa.”
Soon, it had earned a nomination for the best-play Tony Award (it lost to Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) and won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Parks the first black woman so honored. Not too much later, Portland had a production — at Artists Rep in 2003, directed by Antonio Sonera.
Parks’ work hardly has become a regular treat on our local stages. With the exception of some of the short pieces in her mammoth experiment 365 Days/365 Plays and, a couple of years ago, her In the Blood at Portland Actors Conservatory, to my knowledge none of her other plays have been produced here. That drought ends this weekend with the opening of Topdog/Underdog at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre, in a Street Scenes production directed by Bobby Bermea and Jamie M. Rea. LaTevin Alexander and Curtis Maxey Jr. star. Bermea, in particular, has been on a hot streak of late, with brilliant performances in Fences at Portland Playhouse this past spring and in Artists Rep’s fall opener Skeleton Crew, fine directing work on Fires in the Mirror for Profile, plus some insightful journalism for (ahem!) Oregon ArtsWatch.
Meanwhile, the reputation of Topdog/Underdog has grown. Earlier this year, when the current crop of Times critics decided to hash out a list of the best American plays of the past 25 years (since the epochal Angels in America, whose anniversary re-mount occasioned the exercise), Parks’ dog came out on top.
“During the past quarter century, Suzan-Lori Parks has emerged as the most consistently inventive, and venturesome, American dramatist working today,” they wrote, and praised Topdog/Underdog as “both a vivid, present-tense family portrait and an endlessly reverberating allegory” and a “perfectly shaped distillation of epic themes: race, history and the con games of American identity.”
For all that lofty talk, Parks’ set-up is simple, if a little odd in some of the particulars. The play takes place in a single “seedily furnished rooming house room,” where a man, having been kicked out by his wife, has come to crash with his younger brother. They talk of pasts and plans. Younger brother practices the sleight of hand and rhythmic patter of three-card monte, the street hustle that older brother once starred in but has abandoned. Older brother comes home pensive from his job at an arcade — and here’s where the historical shit starts getting raggedy — impersonating Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, sitting quietly only to be shot over and over by tourists with cap guns. For richness of irony, plus that “endlessly reverberating allegory,” the arcade worker’s name is Lincoln, and baby brother is Booth.
The play focuses on “who the world thinks you’re going to be, and how you struggle with that,” Parks once told the Newark Star-Ledger. “If you’ve thought about the American dream, this play might speak to you,” she says. “If anyone ever told you, ‘You’re going to be such and such way when you grow up,’ or you thought, ‘I’m turning into my mother,’ this has something to say to you. … You might have moved out of the house when you were 18, but you carry your family situation around with you.”
Back in that early Times review, Brantley noted the echoes of the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel: “Parks gives the archetype her own dizzying spin. Brotherly love and hatred is translated into the terms of men who have known betrayal since their youth, when their parents walked out on them, and who will never be able entirely to trust anyone, including (and especially) each other. Implicit in their relationship is the idea that to live is to con….In a sense the whole play is about life as a series of theatrical postures: some voluntary, some reflexive and some imposed by centuries of history.”
Or, as Lincoln, in a mood at once fatalistic and predatory, tells Booth, “But you was in such a hurry to learn thuh last move that you didn’t bother learning thuh first one. That was yr mistake. Cause it’s thuh first move that separates the Player from the Played. And thuh first move is to know that there ain’t no winning.”
Or not to be
“Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished!”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, of course, hardly has been alone in such thoughts. Ben Moorad knows this. Moorad, co-founder of the non-profit Write Around Portland, is the grandson of a psychologist who, in 1940s Connecticut, collected the stories of more than a hundred people who had attempted suicide. After discovering the stories amid his grandfather’s papers, Moorad has spent years researching them and writing about them and has drawn on them recently to create The Art of Blushing and The Lazarus Complex, two stand-alone multimedia theatrical explorations of their fraught psychological terrain. Hand2Mouth Theatre presents them over the next two weekends — The Art of Blushing (“about adolescence, displacement and the dream of the past,” according to the company’s website) on Thursdays, The Lazarus Complex (about the magical thinking of suicide and the perseverance of the will to live”) on Fridays, with the double-feature on Saturdays. Hand2Mouth founder Jonathan Walters directs. Community conversations will be held following shows on Nov. 9 and 15.
ArtsWatcher DeAnn Welker found compelling performances, striking design work and plenty of emotional connection in A Life, the small, surprising Adam Bock play in Portland Center Stage’s Ellyn Bye Studio. Bennett Campbell Ferguson called Milagro Theatre’s latest Dia de Muertos production ¡Alebrijes! “poignant and excitingly strange—a blast of visual wonderment that pokes fun at the very idea of death without ever fully making light of it.” Last week’s DramaWatch column included looks into both Portland Actors Conservatory’s Othello: the Remix and the Oregon Children’s Theatre Young Professionals’ Shiver.
All are worth checking out, but time is running out.
Best line I read this week
“Character always comes first, before the physical representation. Just as it is with all living things, including human beings. We are not what we look like. We are not even what we sound like. We are how we move; in other words, our personalities.”
— from “Chuck Amuck,” a memoir by the great Looney Tunes cartoon director Chuck Jones.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.