Review: Topdog/Underdog

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Topdog/UnderdogThe South African premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, directed by Mdu Kweyama, is the first two-act play in residence at the Alexander Upstairs Theatre. An important American text from the African Diaspora, the play looks at the lives of two African-American brothers, Booth and Lincoln, set in the small, cluttered apartment they share. Through conversations and monologues in fiercely appropriate American accents, the play acts as a study of personal relationships, family dynamics, roles and expectations.

It is revealed that the two brothers were abandoned as children, and we explore their routine lives as they work through their affairs with women, jobs, poverty, gambling, alcoholism, racism and their troubled pasts. We see an older brother tied down to the responsibility to do ‘what is right’, and a younger brother attempting to escape the elder’s shadow. Suzan-Lori Parks’ words the recurring theme perfectly: “who the world thinks you’re going to be, and how you struggle with that”.

Lincoln, a retired con-man, is dedicated to reinventing himself on the straight and narrow. He lives on the measly paycheck of an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, and sleeps on the armchair in his younger brother’s apartment after his wife had thrown him out.

We are first introduced to Booth as he sits at a chair and table made of crates and a wooden board, waving his hands around in manic, unfamiliar gestures. This enticing introduction left me questioning what this man could possibly be doing. But, in unfailing fashion, the plot reveals what we take to be madness as a practical routine. The anomaly is further explored throughout the play and is, I would argue, essential in evoking interest and close attention.

The room, with its minimalist mess, reveals something deeply personal about the characters and their situation. Seeing into someone’s personal space will always have this effect, but in theatre this often seems forced. Topdog/Underdog has fabricated an authentic lens for the audience to glimpse into the characters’ livelihood. A single bed beneath which an explosion of papers emerges, an armchair laden with a blanket, simple makeshift furniture, peeling paint, windows adorned in black bags, and cuss words written on the walls all add to the reality of the set design echoing scarcity and effort.

The changing wardrobe also heightens the perceived reality of the production as the characters change between day, night and work-wear. It is interesting to note how their attitudes change as their costumes do: Lincoln is his professional self in a suit, hat and fake beard, while in home-wear he relaxes into his casual self. This can be attributed to the success of the acting – a slight change of posture or a calmed expression consciously changes the way the character is perceived.

Like the play’s American origins, the actors have donned American accents. Both actors confidently and clearly project their pronunciations with excellent understanding of the particular phonetics. Marty Kintu (Blue Orange and Warhorse), plays Lincoln. His completely believable rendition of an American accent paired with his slow and steady manner holds his character perfectly throughout the performance. Booth is played by Daniel Richards (SALT), whose most recent achievements include a Fleur du Cap nomination for Best Actor in a Musical in 2015 and the Standard Bank Ovation Award for SALT in 2014.

As always with Alexander Upstairs productions, the lighting is on point. A highlight of this play was watching Booth enter his room to prepare for a date. As he lights a candle, the room glows with a warm yellow light emanating from a spotlight. These clever and well-thought out lighting solutions add to the mood of each scene just as music subtly emphasises particular moments.

The run time of two hours and ten minutes may at first seem a little off-putting to any unseasoned theatre-goer, but in almost the blink of an eye it was interval and my attention was kept throughout. With an ending nothing short of a reality check, this play is an absolute must-see for anyone looking to be moved.

Alex Kaczmarek

Topdog/Underdog is on at Alexander Upstairs Theatre until 20 May 2017. 

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