Review: In ‘Topdog/Underdog,’ nothing is holier than the hustle

“Topdog/Underdog” tells about itself before the curtain rises in the first scene. House lights fade to the song “Grinding All My Life” by Nipsey Hussle. In 2019, Hussle — a Crenshaw-born, community-oriented rapper and entrepreneur — was gunned down outside his clothing store in South LA. His murderer of him? A member of the same gang Hussle formerly ran with. In other words, a brother. When we enter the story within “Topdog / Underdog,” Booth, the younger of the two siblings central to the text, sloppily practices a three-card-monte scam in his bedroom from him. Booth is a little hectic with his hands (a recurring theme) but takes a measured approach to the ritual: throwing the playing cards, running from pretend police and even threatening an invisible “mark” (scam victim) not to touch his cards — as he has heard his older brother do several times. That older brother is Lincoln (“Link”), who enters the room abruptly dressed as his namesake: Abraham Lincoln. The top hat and long coat are more customary and less cosplay since Link is employed as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at a local arcade. Patrons pay to shoot this Black man in whiteface. He gets paid to die.

One could trip over the number of Hussle’s lyrics that mirror themes in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer-winning play, which is currently receiving a glorious revival at Broadway’s Golden Theatre:

“All my life, been grindin’ all my life
Sacrificed, hustle paid the price
Want a slice? Got to roll the dice”

“Look, I’m married to this game, that’s who I made my wife
Said I’ll die alone, I told that bitch she prolly right”

“Ain’t we travel ’round the world gettin’ cream or what?
Ain’t you get off on whoever Hussle seems to rush?”

The same opening scene that introduces Lincoln and Booth to the audience reveals their demons: parents who abandoned them as children, lovers who struggle to hold onto, a meager diet of Styrofoam-laden takeout and Jack Daniels as “med-sin.” Link’s salary is divided to pay the bills and Booth “boosts” clothing from high-end stores to robe the brothers’ backs. And for the play’s remaining two hours, audiences watch the tragedy of two Black men who’ve been grindin’ all their lives unfold.

Corey Hawkins plays Lincoln, who was a three-card-monte master prior to the Honest Abe gig. He is as righteous about throwing cards as a Baptist preacher is about Sunday mornings, but has turned away from the lifestyle after witnessing its vicious consequences. At the pursuance of Booth (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, in his Broadway debut), however, Link teaches his little bro what he knows. Link is flashy, but it’s a cockiness that’s been earned, not borrowed like Booth’s. We’re spoiled by Hawkins’ performance: between his nimble hands shuffling cards and his gravelly voice chewing Parks’ words, it’s a Sophie’s choice of what to focus on. Even with his towering stature, Abdul-Mateen II successfully dwindles to kidlike immaturity as Booth. He idolizes the game — trying the nickname “Three-Card” on for size — and its potential to make him rich. Every practice win over Lincoln is a stroke to his ego.

When we see Lincoln and Booth wrestle for control over the other, what we are actually witnessing is Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen II passing control throughout each scene. Under the expert direction of Kenny Leon, the actors have made a delicious dance out of besting one another. Clawing intense audience laughter from Parks’ dark script, Hawkins and Abdul-Mateen II are excellent students of “rep and rev” (repetition and revision), a technique that Parks — also a musician — borrows from jazz. When experiencing the work of a playwright that laughs in the face of traditional form, repeats entire chunks of text and lists the play’s setting as simply “here and now,” it is essential to hire artists that can cull a specific beauty from all the ambiguity . Outside of Lincoln and Booth’s bedroom, there is a vast, tempestuous, unseen world that manages to hold all the riches a man could want and all the dangers a man ought to be afraid of. Inside their bedroom? The psychological carnage of two men left in that world’s wake. High praise to scenic designer Arnulfo Maldonado for physically constructing this duality: the dingy, dirty bedroom that the actors play in is surrounded by luxurious, golden drapes. Lincoln and Booth’s better life is in sight, but always out of reach.

For all of the circularness of “Topdog/Underdog,” Leon does a great job of finding its dramatic points. With only two actors and a room, the play serves up a harsh account of the ills faced by America’s underdogs but does so with enough laughter to help the med-sin go down sweet. Gambling, cheating, stealing — you almost forget they are sins in a play this holy.

“Topdog/Underdog” opened at the John Golden Theater on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

Review photo: Marc J. Franklin.

Creative: Written by Suzan-Lori Parks; Directed by Kenny Leon; Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design by Justin Ellington.

Producers: David Stone, LaChanze, Rashad V. Chambers, Marc Platt, Debra Martin Chase and The Shubert Organization (Robert E. Wankel: Chairman and CEO; Elliot Greene: Chief Operating Officer; Charles Flateman: Executive Vice President).

Cast: Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

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