Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer Prize for “Topdog/Underdog” in 2002. But as Zoetic Stage’s superb new production of the play at Miami’s Arsht Center demonstrates, her funny, shocking tale of two brothers struggling to survive is as potent today as it was 15 years ago. Maybe more so, given the country’s deepening divide.
Parks’ harrowing drama examines the complex relationship of Lincoln (Eddie Brown) and his younger brother Booth (Marckenson Charles).
Their names are drenched in irony, in part because Lincoln is a black man who ekes out a living by slathering on whiteface makeup, dressing as the 16th president of the United States and allowing customers at an arcade shooting gallery to “assassinate” him multiple times each day. And though the script, a dark comedy that is both poetic and profane, contains myriad surprises, it eventually leads to a tragedy as predictable as it is heartbreaking.
Abandoned as kids, first by their “Moms,” then two years later by their “Pops,” with Lincoln then 16 and Booth 11, the brothers have next to nothing that links them to their traumatic past. Just an old photo album, those names (their father’s idea of a joke) and each other.
Their relationship? It’s complicated, enriched by love, marked by mutual dependence and poisoned by deadly sibling rivalry.
Lincoln, a past master at three-card monte, abandoned the lucrative con game after his “side man” Lonny was murdered. Now he has a bizarre sit-down job with a steady paycheck, though he fears he’s about to be laid off, replaced with a wax dummy. And he has another problem: Booth wants his brother to school him in three-card monte, then go into the racket together.
Beyond the fact that Lincoln now sees the cards as a bad-luck symbol of loss, he has no desire to team with his volatile brother. Lincoln’s moves are smooth, slick and quick, his patter hypnotic. Cocky Booth is slower, heavy-handed, temperamental. In cards, as in life, Booth is the underdog to Lincoln’s top dog.He’s ready to blow, to go all Cain and Abel on his elder bro.
“Topdog/Underdog” is a two hander with swagger and a vicious bite, a play uncensored in its handling of everything from matter-of-fact crime to sexual desire turned predatory. Director Stuart Meltzer has shaped a production full of laughter and shocks, carefully calibrating the speeches, silences and movement of the actors so that “Topdog/Underdog” becomes as mesmerizing as Lincoln’s monte patter.
The performances by Brown and Charles, both New World School of the Arts grads (Brown went to New World’s high school, then earned degrees from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, while Charles got his college training at New World), are models of richly detailed, powerfully engaging acting.
Brown’s Lincoln is the caretaking older brother, more reliable yet emotionally wounding to the restless Booth in dangerous ways he doesn’t fully grasp. Brown is physically expressive as he tries out ways to spice up the Lincoln-in-the-arcade act or as he tries to fall asleep in the tattered red velvet recliner (picked up curbside, no doubt) that serves as his bed in Booth’s shabby room.
Charles’ moves nearly become a dance, and his shoplifter’s striptease is flat-out hilarious. In Booth, he fuses desire, envy, deep psychological damage and a hair-trigger temper to create a character who inspires both pity and fear.
Michael McClain’s two-level set opens to reveal the close quarters of Booth’s room and an upper level where Greg Duffy’s video design references Lincoln’s tourist-trap work environment and the elements of three-card monte. Prop designer Natalie Tavares has supplied the tools of Booth’s would-be trade along with stacks of magazines that fuel his sexual fantasies.
Sound designer Matt Corey provides subtle music as well as the sounds of the neighborhood, while costume designer Angelina Esposito has dressed Brown in an arcade-worthy Lincoln getup and Charles in clothing that looks like a boosted wardrobe. Rebecca Montero’s lighting traverses the play’s shifting emotions, and it is key to underscoring Lincoln’s feelings about the bad juju of the cards.
Still to come in Zoetic’s eclectic season are the world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts” as well as the South Florida premieres of the play “Dancing Lessons” and the Broadway musical hit “Fun Home.”“Topdog/Underdog” gets the company off to a ferocious, heart-wrenching start.
“Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks, Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 19. Cost:$50 and $55. Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
Back for an 8th season in Miami, the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater packs the house every year. With Liberty City hometown hero Robert Battle in his fifth year, we have many rea..
Awash in sunlight, around 50 women stand in a circle on the rooftop performance space of Casa Gaia in Old Havana, Cuba, as part of a belly-dance festival. Biodanza facilitator Karen Rodríguez..
Choreographer Jeanguy Saintus works primarily from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but his creative work has global appeal. He is a pioneering artist who blends Haiti’s traditional music and dance alo..
New life for a legacy ballet—a veritable choreographer-magnet—created a great buzz about Miami City Ballet’s third program this season. But at the Arsht Center for the Performing ..
Who doesn’t delight in fairies? Miami City Ballet, for the success of its third program of the season, is certainly banking on one. And, instead of wielding a magic wand, she comes eager to p..
Transgendered performance artist Scott Turner Schofield is a collector of stories. Growing up in the South, the tales that were told about the gay and trans community were the ugliest kind of..
The Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores is giving experimental dancer-choreographer Lazaro Godoy the opportunity to interweave his visual arts and performance passions in ArMOUR, a multimedi..
The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet artistic director Tom Mossbrucker and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty have thrilled audiences world wide with stimulating and exciting performances, and Miam..
The future came a long time ago. That impression arose in two forward-pointing yet decades-old company premieres on Miami City Ballet’s second program of the season. In the opening performanc..
Tigertail’s ScreenDance Miami festival is now in its fourth year. One of the few festivals in the country dedicated solely to movement for film and video, ScreenDance aims high. The goal: a f..
The white walls and well-trod floor of a light-pierced studio at Miami City Ballet enclose a charmed space—a field of incalculable energy—as sets of coupled dancers rehearse, in q..
Myth has it that a Cuban who doesn’t dance is a rare creature. Like the endangered Florida panther, you could live an entire lifetime without ever sighting one. “We come from a dancing island..
Chorographer and educator Daniel Lewis has only taken two weeks’ vacation since he retired as the Dean of the Dance Department at New World School of the Arts five years ago. “Even then, I wo..
Never at a loss for words, artistic director Peter Londondescribes what has compelled him to undertake two powerhouse pieces of music for his newest performance venture of the Peter London Gl..
What happens to old dances? Do they slowly disappear as choreographers and dancers move on to other projects? This may well be the case unless an effort is made to revive the piece-- reconstr..
Miami-based choreographer Ana Mendez has been producing original and accomplished work in Miami for years. This December, she is closing out 2016 with a Grass Stains commissioned work set at ..
Blessed by good parentage and nurturing support, a hale and hearty ballet company has just been born in South Florida. Under the direction of Jennifer Carlynn Kronenberg and Carlos Miguel Gue..
Tango, one of the most democratic forms of music and dance, grew out of the diverse working class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. The rich blending of different cultures mixe..
Seattle-based choreographer Pat Graney started working on her newest project Girl Gods in 2012. It is the second installment of a triptych that began with her 2008 project House of Mind. Yet ..
Jose Limon’s (1908- 1972) vision still endures and the company he founded is now in its 70th year -- a tribute to the man and the artist, and those who believe in his gifts. He did not set ou..
Choreographer Michael Clark's soundscapes aren't the usual -- he uses the music of the punk poets David Bowie and Patti Smith and early 20th century avant-garde French composer Erik Satie. He..
Flamenco performer Francisco Hidalgo, whose surname means “nobleman,” brought a bygone era of dignity and grace to life on the stage of the Miami-Dade County Auditorium in early November, in ..
I first saw the flamenco dancer Celia Fonta perform with her husband, Spanish guitarist and singer, Paco, some 20 years ago at Café Miro, a small Spanish tapas bar on Espanola Way in South B..
For many people it’s hard to imagine Miami without a vibrant art scene, but in 1987 Miami was just beginning its journey towards becoming a major hub for the arts, and New World School of the..
Silencio. Silence. In the words of choreographer and flamenco artist Francisco Hidalgo “dance rests on the beats of silence.” Los Silencios del Baile is making its U.S. and world preview this..
Reflecting on the brutal treatment she receives at the hands of Juliana Triviño, who plays her torturer in the October 28 Alma Dance Theater (ADT) production of “Cask,” fellow principal danc..
Many of us can recall the iconic image from the recently completed Rio Paralympics and the match between two world-class fencers, anchored in wheelchairs, torsos thrusting backward and forwar..
People often imagine new artwork is the product of the solitary artist genius slaving away in lonely studios. The South Florida Symphony’s 20th anniversary program foregrounds a different vis..
At an age when many are winding down their working lives, Ignacio Berroa eagerly anticipates a new stage in his career. It would be understandable if the 64-year-old drummer, recognized a..
We know it’s the holiday season when trees light up, menorah candles start to burn, ubiquitous Christmas carols pipe through drugstores, “The Nutcracker” plays on every stage – and in recent ..
Late last year, on Dec. 20, 2016, Romero Britto and Mark Bryn hosted the Great Artists Series Cocktail Reception at the Britto Fine Art Gallery to celebrate the legendary impresaria, Judy Dru..
Everyone remembers a lost weekend, binge reading a novel whose ending had to wait because the body just gave out. No matter how compelling the story somewhere around the 30th hour the brain s..
Globalization has produced many stories —not all inspiring. But having a Pakistani ensemble become a worldwide sensation by playing Paul Desmond’s immortal “Take Five,” which pianist Da..
When the management of New York’s iconic Apollo Theater approached drummer Gregg Field last year about organizing a concert there in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth..
They’ve opened a Chanel fashion show in Havana and been featured in Beyoncé’s visual album for “Lemonade.” The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has danced to their music. Their Florida debu..
There are few artists who have had the impact in their disciplines that guitarist Paco De Lucía had in flamenco. There is a before-and-after De Lucía in flamenco. He expanded the harmonic voc..
El segundo programa de la temporada 2017-2018 del Miami City Ballet (MCB) dedicado a los 100 años del nacimiento de Jerome Robbins (1918-1998), el gran coreógrafo norteamericano que triunfó ..
2017 fue un buen año para la danza en Miami. El Flamenco Festival nos permitió volver a ver a Jesús Carmona, el Internacional Ballet Festival of Miami (IBFM) sobrevivió al huracán Irma, Dance..
El Miami City Ballet (MCB) presentó por fin en el Arsht Center la nueva producción de su gran espectáculo navideño, el “Cascanueces” de Tchaikovsky y Balanchine, ahora con diseños origin..
La tradicional temporada de Cascanueces del Miami City Ballet (MCB) tendrá algo nuevo este año. La compañía que dirige Lourdes López ha decidido renovar los diseños de la superproducción que..
El programa que Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami (DDTM) presentó el sábado pasado en su exitoso debut como compañía en residencia del South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC) y a solo ..
Hay pocos artistas que han tenido el impacto en sus disciplinas como el guitarrista Paco De Lucía tuvo en flamenco. En este género, hay un antes y después de De Lucía. Expandió el vocabul..
Dance NOW! Miami, la Florida Dance Education Organization (FDEO), Miami Dance Futures y la New World School of the Arts (NWSA) colaboraron el fin de semana pasado para presentar la Daniel Lew..
Esta es una gran noticia para el público amante del ballet en Miami. Tras un paréntesis de diez años en los que solo nos visitó de manera esporádica, la Primera Bailarina mexicana Katia Carra..
Solo hay que aplicar el concepto “seis grados de separación” a uno de los artistas que se han presentado en las Galas de Estrellas del Festival Internacional de Ballet de Miami (IBFM por sus ..