Playmakers' Topdog/ Underdog is definitely not to be missed. First produced in New York with Don Cheadle (and later, Mos Def) and Jeffrey Wright in the cast, Topdog was written by the audacious Suzan-Lori Parks, who, with this play, became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama (she is also a MacArthur "genius" award recipient).
Topdog/ Underdog is the sharp, exhilarating story of two brothers named Lincoln and Booth—their father's idea of a joke, we're told. Together they pair off into an alternately loving and threatening tango, bearing testament to the luck of the draw as two black men, abandoned by their parents and captivated by the con game three-card monte.
Topdog/ Underdog, which Playmakers is presenting in rotating repertory with Doubt, has been mounted under the guidance of director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the new artistic director of San Francisco's Brava Theater Center and the assistant director for the original New York production of Topdog/ Underdog. Here, Brandon Dirden (Booth) and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lincoln) deserve equal merit for this two-hander set entirely in Booth's one-room apartment. The layered complexity of Lincoln's character is shown through his job in an arcade where, dressed in "whiteface" as his namesake, patrons pay to role-play, shooting him from behind.
Due to its Seuss-like, almost painstakingly clear rhythmic phrasing, Henderson's delivery feels masked and therefore unpredictable, which makes Lincoln's web of emotions all the more intense and engaging. Dirden's portrayal of Booth's more transparent character has the deft range of a saxophone, exploding and soothing side by side, working in harmony with the "rep and rev" strategy Parks adopts from jazz in her plays (described in the playbill as "rhythmic progress by means of repetition with incremental change").
And like jazz artists, each member of the artistic crew—including scene designer Marion Williams, lighting designer Justin Townsend and sound designer Michèl Marrano—produces shining solo work that manages to coalesce into a dynamic piece.