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Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks: Summary, Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Topdog/Underdog Introduction
  • 0:35 Topdog/Underdog Plot Summary
  • 2:35 Themes And Analysis Of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rahman Johnson

Rahman is a TV News Anchor with a Master's Degree in Strategic Communications and Leadership.

If you've got a brother or sister, cousin, or even just a friend, chances are you've experienced some type of sibling rivalry. Topdog/Underdog is the story of two brothers who are bound by blood, but struggle for respect and ultimately, the title of topdog.

Topdog/Underdog Introduction

Topdog/Underdog is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks that premiered on Broadway in 2002 and the West End in London. Parks, also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant, was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was a protégé of writer and theorist James Baldwin. The initial off-Broadway show starred Don Cheadle (Booth) and Jeffrey Wright (Link). The Broadway cast of the show, directed by George C. Wolfe, featured hip-hop artist Mos Def taking over the role of Booth.

Topdog/Underdog Plot Summary

The play is about two African-American brothers, Lincoln (nicknamed Link) and Booth. Their father thought that the relationship between John Wilkes-Booth and President Abraham Lincoln would be a funny joke. The choice of naming the children for an assassin and his target foreshadows how tumultuous the relationship between Link and Booth would become.

Both brothers were abandoned by their parents and have depended on each other for survival since they were teens. Link, the older of the two brothers, was a master of Three-Card Monte. Three-Card Monte is a card game usually used by confidence men to trick players into betting on whether they could identify a target card from three possible card choices. Link retired from the con after a friend was killed during a game. He found honest work at a carnival, ironically, impersonating Abraham Lincoln. People would pay to walk up behind him and shoot him.

Although Booth is the younger brother, he is highly opinionated and has followed in his brother's footsteps as a con man. He is working toward being the best Three-Card Monte player ever. He is also a petty thief who steals from area stores.

The first half of the play focuses on Booth, who is trying to convince Link to leave his job at the carnival and get back to hustling Three-Card Monte. Booth thinks that since Link is a better card player than he is, they can work together to make even more money. We learn that Booth was recently kicked out by his ex-wife Cookie, and is living with his brother. His life consists of hustling and enjoying a life of pleasure while reminiscing about his childhood. Link doesn't like his brother's laziness or career path. This disconnect is the cause for the majority of their conflict. Most of what Booth wants for the future is tied to getting Link away from the carnival and back in the card game.

The major issues seem to come to a head and reach resolution in the second half of the play. Booth gets stood up by a woman that he has been seeing and gets hustled by his brother Link. All of these things seem to push him over the edge, and in a rage, Booth kills them both at the end of the play.

Themes and Analysis of Topdog/Underdog

There are a few major themes that Parks deals with in Topdog/Underdog; however, the overarching theme is race and class in America.

Although both Link and Booth are African-American, they are named after an assassinated US President who brought an end to slavery, and his assassin. The naming of the characters and the fact that Link, who portrays President Lincoln, is killed over and over again, speaks to how Lincoln's work is 'murdered' almost daily through racial issues that still surface in this country.

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