Skip to main content

Nigel Shawn Williams as Lincoln and Kevin Hanchard as Booth in Topdog/Underdog.

Emily Cooper.

3.5 out of 4 stars





The Shaw Festival's Studio Theatre continues to be the place to be for lovers of edgier drama in the summertime. That's where you'll find Philip Akin's alternately bouncy and bleak Canadian premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer winner, Topdog/Underdog.

In the 2001 play, Nigel Shawn Williams and Kevin Hanchard give top-notch performances as down-on-their-luck brothers and roommates Lincoln and Booth, who were named after American President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, by a mischievous (and now missing) father. "It was his idea of a joke," Booth says as explanation.

Lincoln used to be a successful street hustler known for his skill at three-card monte until violence brought an end to his conman's confidence. Now, divorced and reduced to sleeping in a recliner in the corner of his brother's one-room apartment, he has a demeaning job that he sadly seems to have been destined for: working at a local arcade as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator.

Story continues below advertisement

Dressed in a stovepipe hat, strap-on beard and white make-up, Lincoln sits in a replica of the president's box at Ford's Theatre, and visitors pay to sneak up behind him and shoot him. Parks borrowed this unusual employment from an earlier, absurdist play of hers, The America Play, and its symbolic significance is not diluted in the realm of realism.

Booth, meanwhile, has swagger but little else. He's a professional shoplifter, or "booster," who is pretty good at boosting himself as well, claiming his ex-girlfriend Grace will come crawling back to him any moment. Though Booth's professed power over women and every other aspect of his life are delusions, he has nevertheless come to dominate Lincoln, who pays the rent yet lives in fear of being thrown on the street. The balance of power is beginning to shift, though.

Shawn Williams gives a masterful performance as a worn-out, dejected man who gradually dares to take his deferred dreams back off the shelf, while Hanchard is all lively bluster and guff as his younger brother – though he drops that mask, startlingly, at the end. While the two men play off each other well, Akin's production could use an injection of urgency, especially in the first half. With its languorous scene shifts, this feels like a lower-key Canadian production of an energetic American play.

In the grand tradition of dysfunctional family drama, Topdog/Underdog – one of the experimental Parks's most accessible works – features family secrets gradually revealed and a highly allegorical inheritance. But what keeps the intrigue going, after a gun is pulled early on, is the question of how these two brothers relate to their namesakes. Is American history about to repeat itself in these two African-Americans' lives? And if so, will it be as farce or again as tragedy?

There's also the verve of Parks's script, which finds poetry in profanity and streetwise slang, and has an almost musical swing to it. The three-card-monte patter that Booth practices, hoping to follow in his brother's footsteps, is the recurring, almost hypnotic refrain. "Pick-thuh-red-card-you-pick-uh-winner," Booth says. "Pick-thuh-black-card-and-you-pick-uh-loser."

With Topdog/Underdog, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has once again picked a winner for her festival's smallest space.



Topdog/Underdog runs to Aug. 27 at the Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Story continues below advertisement





Topdog/Underdog

  • Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
  • Directed by Philip Akin
  • Starring Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams
  • At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter