Photo: Cat Laine
It’s a slow fuse that burns throughout the first act of Topdog/Underdog, but once the flame hits the dynamite in act two, the entire theatre explodes.
That’s the best way to describe the season opener at Gamm Theatre. This is the long – two hours and 20 minutes – but riveting exploration of race, sibling rivalry, and the impact of generational trauma that earned playwright Suzan-Lori Parks the distinction of being the first Black woman to earn a Pulitzer Prize.
Centered on the meager existence of two Black brothers – Lincoln, a card shark who trades the hustle to portray Abraham Lincoln in an arcade where people pay to shoot him, and Booth, who wants to take over his brother’s card racket but lacks the skills – Topdog/Underdog is gritty. Gritty and sad, but also oddly endearing at the same time.
The brothers are likable for the most part, though their plight in the world is tragic. Abandoned by both parents as teens, the boys raise each other and struggle in a world that’s not typically kind to poor, uneducated minorities.
Making his directorial debut at Gamm, Cliff Odle makes choices that fuel the explosive nature of the story. Told in the round on a Spartan square stage, the story simmers under antiquated lights that flicker during scene changes against a backdrop of urban sounds, and cast a powerful beam on tense moments between the brothers.
In addition, Odle’s casting could not be more expert. Marc Pierre returns to the Gamm stage as a slightly unhinged Booth, pouring such emotional force into scenes that the audience feels like they are watching him unravel before them. He is intense as he begs his brother to teach him his card trickery, then becomes frighteningly unhinged when Lincoln refuses.
Newcomer Anthony T. Goss fills the role of Lincoln with such searing intensity that it’s difficult to look away from him when he speaks, or looks silently out the window, deep in thought.
Topdog/Underdog asks difficult questions. Who are the people who would pay to shoot at a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln? Could parents who abandon their children ever be happy? Do people, as Lincoln tries to teach Booth, ever learn the truth about what it is, and what it isn’t? What terror lurks when a man stops stuffing down the bad part of himself?
These questions aren’t necessarily answered in the production, but in posing them, Parks and Odle create a heightened appreciation for life’s vagaries and inequities. And, by the explosive end, when the terror is unleashed, maybe it leaves viewers wanting to do better in the future.
Topdog/Underdog is playing through October 1 at the Gamm, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. Visit gammtheatre.org for more information.