“Topdog Underdog” team: director Kenny Leon, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Corey Hawkins, playwright Suzan Lori-Parks Credit: Courtesy photo

Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Suzan Lori-Parks demonstrates that she is the master wordsmith with her play “Topdog/Underdog,” now having an explosive 20th anniversary revival at the John Golden Theatre at 252 W. 45th St. Lori-Parks tells the story of two Black brothers, Lincoln and Booth. These are two Black men for whom life dealt terrible cards. They have not known love, security, support in their home lives, but instead experienced abandonment by both their parents, betrayal, chaos. They have known fear, hunger, desperation. Through it all they have always had each other, but also carried a great deal of anger and envy. They have always needed to feel loved and important and that has not worked out well for either. What happens to Black boys who grow up with only the disadvantages of life? These brothers became hustlers and thieves. They measure their success by their ability to have a place to live, no matter how poor and drab the accommodation, to get to eat and to budget whatever money they make to pay for the bare necessities.

Lincoln used to make his money scamming people with the card game Three-card Monte, but he stopped after tragedy struck. His younger brother Booth wants to follow in his footsteps and tries his best to practice the card scam. These brothers take sibling rivalry to a level that boggles the mind and the heart. While Lori-Parks gives them some moments of joy, as they recall times in their childhood when they worked together, you intensely feel both of their pain and frustration with their lot in life.

From the time that the play starts the storyline is presented fast and furious. The two actors, whether alone or together, have intensely quick-spoken words that reveal some of the deep disappointment, anguish and humiliation they have suffered and are currently suffering. Corey Hawkins is meticulously brilliant as older brother Lincoln. He vividly lets you feel every emotion his character has had to endure. While he is a master at Three-card Monte, he is a mess over the current cards life has dealt him. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes an astounding Broadway debut as Booth. He is the ultimately younger brother who loves/respects/envies/hates his older brother.

Life has given these two Black brothers a card hand that would have anyone feeling they have no self-worth. When you feel that way what can you really do? When you are angry with the world, who will you take it out on? “Topdog/Underdog” is the ultimate look at sibling rivalry gone mad, but its background story helps the audience to see why. You can’t be angry with these terribly unfortunate men.

Every moment in the theater was vivid and memorable! Before the play started you walked in to hear rap music blasting. The audience was a lovely sight to see as it was populated by so many Black people. We were out there and representing beautifully. It warmed my soul to see that the audience had people of all colors and races, bopping to the rap beat. When the play started we all took the ride with these two phenomenal actors. We laughed, we were shocked, we felt their pain, and sympathy for their tragic lives. This magnificent play is directed by Kenny Leon and he always brings the drive and power of what the Black man has suffered to whatever work he directs. Leon took this play and made us see the connection between these two brothers, but also the huge disconnect. His work is what a great director is, he makes you feel something deep inside.

Every technical element of this production also lent itself to setting the mood, from the drab, barely furnished room the brothers shared with milk crates and cardboard for a table, set design by Arnulfo Maldonado, to the costumes by Dede Ayite, lighting by Allen Lee Hughes and sound by Justin Ellington. They all worked together to create this feeling of struggle. Please make plans to experience “Topdog/Underdog”!

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