The play Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks tells about two African American brothers, Lincoln and Booth. As it seems at first, the plot is simple and straightforward. There are only two characters, and all the scenes take place in their tiny apartment. When thinking of the drama deeper, one can comprehend the hidden messages the author wanted to convey. The major themes of the play are Race, Brotherhood, Social Class, and American Dream. Although all these themes are considered different, they are closely interwoven with each other, sharing the same idea and meaning – cultural and racial diversity. The issue of racial diversity and inequality caused many problems for African Americans. They could not live like other people: they could not get a worthy job, earn decent money, or live in a big apartment. Suzan-Lori Parks embodied the problem of the whole race in two black brothers through the short play that received the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2002 (“Student Matinee Guide”, n.d.). The brothers’ American dream could not be fulfilled because of their race, social status, and family relationships, which is illustrated in the play Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks.
Race played an important part in the USA of those times. Before watching or reading the play, one should recollect some historical events that became the basis of the plot. Two brothers were named Lincoln and Booth, as the President Abraham Lincoln and his killer John Booth, a stage actor. President Abraham Lincoln tried to abolish slavery and succeeded in it. He wanted to extend voting rights to ex-slaves, but Booth did not support him in this idea and killed the President when he was watching the play (“Student Matinee Guide”, n.d.). The Topdog/Underdog final scene is symbolical because the younger brother Booth shot his elder brother Link, as well as his namesake had shot the President. However, the brothers are African Americans, and this fact underlines the significance of race problem in the USA. Thus, the elder brother works as Lincoln impersonator and he does not like his job. He is black-skinned, so he has to wear white make-up on his face. In the past, Link was the best card hustler, but his wife left him, his partner was killed, and that is why he had abandoned this job. The man cannot find a good job because of his ex-occupation and race, so he has to perform the same scene of the President’s death every day. His younger brother Booth wishes to become as professional card hustler as his brother used to be, but Link does not want to show him his secrets. The brothers live in bad conditions, and such a situation was not new for African Americans of that period. Although slavery was abolished, the attitude toward blacks did not change. Moreover, the problem of race discrimination exists even today, though many people would tell that it is not true. However, the brothers’ race is not the unique reason for their failures and unhappy final. Their social status inconstancy influenced their lifestyle as well.
The Socio-Economic Status
Suzan-Lori Parks showed the protagonists as people of low social and economic status. Thus, she wanted to express the problem faced by many individuals – the absence of job and bad living conditions. One of the brothers has income, and the other steals things on the streets. The only job a black man could find was the role of Lincoln, being shot in his head. His salary is so small that they can only afford to rent a tiny room without amenities. Booth has no job at all, and his girlfriend Grace stays with him only when he has some money. That is why he wants to succeed in 3-card monte (Parks, 2001). Booth desires to get his brother back to the game and work together; however, Lincoln tries to live legal life and rejects this offer. This situation is ironical since honest existence brings too little money, and 3-card monte could make Lincoln rich. It was not his personal issue; it was the problem of the whole state that could not provide the minorities with worthy working and living conditions. Such a situation pushes the citizens to do some illegal things instead of being honest. Even if a person tried to live fairly, as Lincoln did, eventually, he/she would realize that the previous lifestyle was better. The wish of fair life becomes unfulfilled; Lincoln often remembers his past success, begins to drink, and his chief fires him. The dream is broken, and life is miserable.
Booth has problems with money as well. Still, his story is different. He knows that his beloved woman stays with him when he has money, and he wants Link to return to cards so that “the ladies would be thrilling” (Parks, 2001). It is ironical that he is fond of a woman who values his money but not him, and he accepts it. However, Booth is angry when Link oppresses him for money. Thus, his attitude towards women and his brother differs when thinking about cash. Parks wanted to show this economic conflict because many people face the same troubles today, and the brothers are not the exception. Therefore, the brothers’ American Dream cannot be fulfilled because of their socio-economic status. Nevertheless, the most important theme of the Topdog/Underdog is brotherhood and family relationships, which impedes their wish as well.
The Family Relationships
The protagonists of the play are two brothers. Their parents abandoned them when Lincoln was sixteen and Booth was eleven. Since that time, they had to survive in the cruel world together. Today, brothers are in their thirties and they live together because Lincoln’s wife has left him. Their relations are difficult and diverse. Most of time, they quarrel and fight; however, Booth wants to reunite with his elder brother, and Lincoln seems to be indifferent. However, the first scene shows the act of hostility when Booth pulls his gun on Lincoln for his working costume. He commands him to take it off, and Link agrees because Booth is the tenant.
Despite all the difficulties of their relations, Booth still wants to create a team of them. He tells, “You and me could team up and do it together. We’d clean up, Link” (Parks, 2001). He dreams of working together, making money and about the time when they “come out on top” (Parks, 2001). However, it is obvious from the title that there could be only one top dog, and another one would be under dog. Booth tries to make his family happy, to fulfill his American Dream, but his attempts end with failure. On the contrary, Lincoln has no faith in a dream family, and he is quite satisfied with being alone. His relations with his wife failed, his parents left him many years ago, and his younger brother always needed something from him. Lincoln does not want to create a team and hustle together, unlike Booth who often mentions their parents. He tells, “I didn’t mind them leaving cause you was there. That’s why I’m hooked on us working together. If we could work together it would be like old times” (Parks, 2001). He always believed that they were a family. He wants this feeling back, but his brother rejects all his attempts to reunite them. However, Booth does not stop nagging and he tries to persuade Link to return to his illegal life. Moreover, he uses his brother for his personal benefits. When Lincoln has money, Booth allows him to stay; when he is out of cash, Booth reminds him that it is his place but not Lincoln’s. Thus, the relationships between two brothers are controversial and they depend on their income. Finally, Booth realizes that he cannot bear such an attitude, and he asks Lincoln to go away. When his brother easily agrees, Booth becomes furious. Everything he dreamt of is simply ruined, and his American Dream is unrealizable. Eventually, he takes his gun and shoots his brother.
The play Topdog/Underdog is a simple drama with several complicated hidden senses. It reveals the themes of Race, Socio-Economic Status, and Family Relations. All these issues form the bigger theme – the theme of American Dream, which remains unfulfilled in the play. Booth and Lincoln understand this dream differently. Booth wants his brother to return to his criminal past, work together, and create one family. Lincoln tries to forget about his illegal life; however, he often thinks of it, and it makes him sad. Both brothers are selfish and stubborn since Link does not want to show his brother his tricks, and Booth cannot forgive him this refusal. Thus, Lincoln’s stubbornness costs him his life, and Booth’s obstinacy ruins his dream. The play illustrates daily problems of many African American families that still exist in the modern world. Race discrimination and diversity limit or privilege the minorities. Social and economic statuses play essential roles in contemporary life since poor people have fewer possibilities and more troubles than persons who have money. Family relations often depend on general income. Thus, Suzan-Lori Parks showed that American Dream cannot be fulfilled until the problems of race, social status, and kin relationships exist.