Civil War smoulders in Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre’s Topdog/Underdog

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Eric Berryman as Booth and KenYatta Rogers as Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog (Courtesy photo)

In the program notes for Topdog/Underdog, the current  production at Everyman Theatre, Managing Director Ian Tresselt says, “It is hard for me to believe that this Pulitzer Prize Winner has not been produced in Baltimore.”

Five minutes into Topdog/Underdog, I was thinking the exact same thing.

Skillfully directed by Jennifer L. Nelson, Topdog/Underdog is simply riveting. Author Suzan-Lori Parks penned the allegorical tale about two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth. Abandoned by their parents when the boys were 16 and 11, the brothers survived by their swagger and by Lincoln’s skill as a card-shifting con-man. Now in their thirties, their shared story begins to overtake the duo. Booth schemes to make his mark by imitating his brother’s flimflam moves. Ironically, Lincoln labors as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, sitting for shooters in a faux theater box at a local arcade.

From the opening scene, it is clear there is longstanding acrimony between the two brothers. Lincoln enters, unseen, and watches condescendingly while Booth ineptly practices three card monte, a con he learned – but never quite mastered – from Lincoln.

Booth chides his older brother for walking around in his arcade costume, “All spooked out.” Later, upon hearing the younger man say he wants to change his name, Lincoln proffers, “If you change your name to an African name, pick one that people can pronounce. No one is gonna hire you if they can’t pronounce your name.”

Changing his name is one way Booth hopes to separate himself from his fractured family. His decision, which at first seems self-serving, makes perfect sense, once Lincoln reveals that the monikers were given by their father as a joke.

Eric Berryman scrutinizes KenYatta Rogers' demonstration of three card monte. (Courtesy photo)
Eric Berryman scrutinizes KenYatta Rogers’ demonstration of three card monte. (Courtesy photo)

Neither brother is a saint. Lincoln laughingly admits that, on his bus ride home, ‘Honest Abe’ took an autograph-seeking schoolboy for twenty dollars. Later, when Booth produces several hangers full of shop-lifted menswear, the thief brags, “I stole and I stole generously.”

Plenty of humor is in Topdog/Underdog, and both players delivered their dialogue with relish. The audience howled at ridiculous lines like, “She’s so sweet she makes my teeth hurt.” But there is drama, too, as the undercurrents start to sweep the two siblings away.

KenYatta Rogers appears as the older brother, Lincoln. Like his namesake, Rogers brings an understated dignity to his role. There is a moving moment when Rogers dons his costume greatcoat and stovepipe hat. Placing the chapeau on his head, Rogers says nothing, but visibly beams with pride. This moment tragically turns to one of self-loathing when Rogers delivers the bitter line, “I am a brother playing Lincoln.”

Everyman Theatre resident acting company member Eric Berryman portrays Booth. Berryman begins with a clumsy cockiness befitting his inept card shark character, then adroitly allows the rage within Booth to slowly build, bringing the madness to its inevitable crescendo.

No casting credit is given in the program, but hats-off to whoever brought these excellent actors together.

Costume designer LeVonne Lindsay has fun with the players’ apparel, particularly with the snazzy Saturday night threads the brothers “boost.”

The set by scenic designer James Fouchard amplifies the brothers’ abject circumstances; the hopeless mood enhanced even more by Colin K. Bills’ lighting design.

Strong language appears throughout this play, but it comes across as lyrical rather than raw. The end result is a well-written, finely produced, perfectly acted play. Highly recommended.

This was my first visit to the new location of Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street. The venue is beautiful with an edgy, expansive feel. It is easily accessible, with handicap accommodations. Plentiful parking is adjacent to the theater.

Topdog/Underdog runs now through May 19. Running time is about two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. Tickets and other information may be found here.





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