‘Foundling Father’ Honest Abe Just Can’t Find Honest Work

It’s rare and so very touching when a playwright is called up onstage to receive our applause. The curtain call belongs to the actors, a timeless tradition. The poor old, unrecognized, unheralded playwright can usually be seen, if seen at all, cowering at the back of the theater. But wonderful things happen sometimes.

At the recent opening night of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog , directed by George C. Wolfe at the Public Theater, Jeffrey Wright and Don Cheadle, the two actors who had riveted us with Ms. Parks’ story of brotherhood and tragic destiny, took their well-deserved bows and called Ms. Parks up onstage to join them. You should have seen her face!

She looked so thrilled and happy and beautiful and hopelessly embarrassed . What an astonishing thing it is to be a playwright! To even think of writing a play strikes me as a heroic act. I believe the theater belongs essentially to writers. After all, in the beginning was the word ….

With Suzan-Lori Parks–whom I place alongside Tony Kushner as our most gifted of playwrights– thuh word is always playfully, jazzily alive and, for me, terribly sad. The loopier–the more laughably funny–her memorable plays become, the more they cause us to grieve. Ms. Parks is an original. So are her stories.

Her plays of emotional turmoil and dark comedy are fables of identity and loss, of white icons and black despair, historic lies and fakery, theater and illusion, a tragic America lost in a theme-park destiny like a circus with sideshow freaks. “Watch me close,” goads the mesmerizing three-card monte hustler in Topdog/Underdog , dealing the cards like a whisper to suckers. “Watch me close now. Who see thuh black card who see the black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner that’s thuh winner pick the red card that’s thuh loser pick thuh other red card that’s thuh other loser …. Who see thuh black card who see thuh black card?”

Topdog/Underdog takes place in a rooming house where Booth (Don Cheadle), a black man in his early 30’s, wants to be a master of three-card monte like his older brother, who gave up the scam when his partner was shot. Booth, a.k.a. Three-Card, lacks the basic marketable skills. “Pick thuh black card and you pick thuh loser,” he says, clumsily practicing the ancient art of fooling fools.

Booth is a loser–the underdog–and he’s a thief. “I stole and I stole generously,” he announces, presenting his brother with a cool new suit in one of the funniest scenes in the play after a busy day shoplifting. Booth keeps a stack of porn magazines under the bed. “I’m hot,” he explains indignantly. “I need constant sexual release …. As goes thuh man so goes thuh man’s dick. That’s what I say.” He seems to have a fiancée named Grace, but Grace is another story.

His brother sleeps on a recliner in the seedy room, handing over his paycheck every week in some sweet, pathetic remembered gesture of happy families. He’s called Lincoln, a.k.a. Link (played by Jeffrey Wright), the so-called topdog in this prophetic brotherhood. Their father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke. Some sick joke, of course. As Lincoln sings in an idle moment of comically bad blues:

My dear mother left me, my fathers gone away.

My dear mother left me, and my fathers gone away.

I don’t got no money, I don’t got no place to stay.

My best girl, she threw me out into the street

My favorite horse, they ground him into meat

I’m feeling cold from my head down to my feet ….

Ms. Parks enjoys a dark irony or two–and so do we–but Mr. Wright’s first entrance as Lincoln is riveting and scary, and it haunts us. He comes in quietly, and he’s literally dressed as Abraham Lincoln in an antique frock coat, a stovepipe hat and beard. He’s in whiteface. His movements are heavy and resigned. (Booth’s are light, quicksilver.) This is a man who has already died, and the bizarre, staggering image of his entrance couldn’t be more disturbing. Like some monstrous joke on mythic history, a black man appears in whiteface playing the nation’s white icon. It turns out that the only honest work the reformed three-card monte magician can find is pretending to be Honest Abe in an arcade where customers pretending to be Booth can shoot him with blanks to reenact the assassination.

“Folks come in to kill phony Honest Abe with the phony pistol,” he explains, sounding reasonable. “I can sit there and let my mind travel.”

“Think of women,” his brother says hopefully.

“Sometimes.”

The freak-show Lincoln is a theme that has preoccupied Ms. Parks as if she can’t get it out of fractured dreams, or isn’t done with it yet. A Lincoln impersonator, known as the Foundling Father, appeared in The America Play , which took place in A Great Hole of History, a Hall of Mirrors or Minstrel Gallery. Pretend John Wilkes Booths avenged the South by assassinating the actor who’s Lincoln while others dug feverishly for life and meaning and memory in the detritus of America’s fabled history.

So in Topdog/Underdog , two rival, abandoned black brothers are scarcely living a half-life in the raggedy and bloody American wasteland. Even the Lincoln impersonator is to be replaced–made redundant–by a wax dummy. The dummy can do the job cheaper, more efficiently, than the man who made Honest Abe his career of humiliation.

I didn’t find the tragic outcome of Topdog/Underdog too predictable, as some have. For the tragic inheritance of these two hustlers and deceivers is already determined from the outset, and the conclusion is more powerful for being absolutely, horribly inevitable. “Lean in close and watch me now …. “

There is so much here to admire, and so much to fear about humanity gone wrong. Mr. Wolfe and his two stars, Mr. Wright and Mr. Cheadle, have surely done their best work, and they’ve done the remarkable play proud. Who writes plays like Suzan-Lori Parks? She’s such a gifted and generous talent it breaks your heart.