The show posters outside the John Golden Theatre for the 20th anniversary revival of Topdog/Underdog feature portraits of its two stars, Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, as the title suggests, one above the other. But as you move from one side of the lenticular poster to the other, the images shift and the actors trade places—the first hint that things may not always be what they seem in the play’s series of deceptions.
The revival is directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon, who Hawkins says refers to the story as a fable. It runs until January 15, 2023. Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen play brothers Lincoln and Booth (their father’s idea of a joke) in the two-hander, each man in a constant struggle to stay on top. Lincoln (Hawkins) is a former three-card monte hustler who now makes his living as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, while Booth (Abdul-Mateen) spends his days stealing and trying to perfect his own card-dealing con.
“It all starts with the words,” says Abdul-Mateen of the pair’s exploration of the Pulitzer Prize-winning script by Suzan-Lori Parks. “We just started with the words and began to look for the truth, and that led us through this journey of brotherhood and family and love and humanity that is embedded in the play.”
On the page, the dialogue is written in the brothers’ vernacular, a place and time specified only as “here” and “now” in the first pages of the script. The playwright has built a musicality into the patter with “rests” and “spells.” Although there is a coarseness to the language, there is a sense that it is not base, but rather heightened.
“This play earns and deserves much attention to the words, because these men live fully. They walk these streets. They live out loud,” says Hawkins. The self-confessed jazz nerd likens reading the play to hearing a piece of music, his hands flitting to show a dissonant note there, then a note here that lulls the listener back. “It’s such a journey, but attention must be paid to it in the same way that you would Moliére or Shakespeare or Chekhov. These brothers have earned that just by living and breathing on this planet.”
Like several other plays on the boards this season, Topdog/Underdog examines one of our country’s most prominent cons: the elusivity (and perhaps exclusivity) of the American Dream.
"You know, it’s very seductive, this idea of the American Dream. It will tell you that you matter,” says Abdul-Mateen. “‘I have a chance and I should have a chance if I’m willing to work hard. If I hold up my end of the bargain, good things should happen to me. Then America should uphold its promise.’ And, we’re dealing with two characters who are very much aware of that and are sometimes jaded by it, but they still believe in it. And, because of that, you get a lot of hope and a lot of disappointment, because they experience that the American Dream is not accessible for everybody.”
“It is seductive,” agrees Hawkins. “It is also deceptive. And, yet, we all continue to strive for it, even though we know the things about the American Dream that we know, because we are all searching for hope. Everybody wants hope and success. We need it. We crave it. These brothers do as well. It’s a hard truth, but Lincoln says at the end, ‘It may look like you got a chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you.’ So, there’s something tragic about the American Dream as well, and tragic about our continued investment in it.”
In their own game of three-card monte against the world, these brothers continue to bet on themselves even when it seems like there may be no chance of winning. The Dream gives them just enough to keep going.
“We see them up, then we see life pull them down. Then they fight back at life. It’s about brotherhood. It’s about poverty. It’s about perseverance and love and family. And, family history and trauma. But to me…that just sounds like life,” says Abdul-Mateen.