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Topdog / Underdog

a Atlanta Premiere
by Suzan-Lori Parks

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Woodruff Art Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 1121

SHOWING : November 12, 2004 - December 19, 2004



Two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, confront their lives and each other in this pulitzer-prize winning play.

Fight Choreographer Jason Armit
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


Keep Your Eye on the Cage
by Dedalus
Thursday, December 2, 2004
The first thing you notice about the Alliance’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” is a bit of directorial symbolism that smacks you in the face with its obviousness. The set, a seedy one-room apartment, is confined to a small, boxing-ring-sized square surrounded by a wire-mesh cage. Ooooh, we’re supposed to associate the characters with animals trapped in a cage, or, for the more pop-culture-oriented, be reminded of Mad Max’s Thunderdome paraphrase – “Two Actors Come in, One Goes Out.”

The problem with such obviousness is that it ought to distract from the play it’s pasted to. To my mind, symbolism is an ornament, a subtle literary device that can deepen a work if is it’s noticed, but not detract if it’s not.

What’s so amazing about this bit of sleight-of-hand is that it confounds our expectations and deepens our understanding of the play. Yes, for the first minute or two, the “cage” is really all we see. But as the brothers begin their journey into Cain and Abel Hell, it gradually disappears completely. Yes, we know it’s there, but the struggle going on within holds our attention completely. Yes, it’s symbolic, yes it’s obvious, but, no – it doesn’t distract.

Lincoln and Booth are brothers whose lives are driven by hustle – Lincoln’s past as a 3-card-monte street con artist, Booth’s ambition to learn that game (even though it’s obvious his own talents as a shoplifter are prodigious). Currently, Lincoln works in white-face as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, a “sit-down job with benefits” in which he waits for tourists to “shoot him dead.” His only awareness of those who “play” is an inverted “through-the-looking-glass” image he sees in a dented metal box directly in front of him.

The brothers were abandoned as children, both have problems with women, both live a hard-scrabble existence from hustle to hustle, both have a fierce pride, both have an intense loyalty towards the other, one has a hair-trigger temper that can erupt in sudden violence.

The play is written in the language of the street, but with a heightened, almost poetic sensibility. Not since David Mamet has a playwright found the rhythm and beauty in slang and profanity and filled it with passion, character, and, (here’s that word again) symbol. The 3-card-monte spiel that Lincoln sings as second nature and Booth struggles in his efforts to learn becomes a mantra, and, indeed, every bit as confining and invisible as the wire mesh cage they’ve built for themselves.

Kes Kemnu and Joe Wilson Jr. alternate in the roles of Booth and Lincoln. I saw Mr. Wilson as Lincoln and Mr. Kemnu as Booth, and, it is a credit to their performances that I couldn’t imagine their roles reversed. I’ll have to leave it to others to say how affective the alternate casting was. Mr. Wilson’s Lincoln, the older brother, had a quiet dignity and sadness, a recognition that teaching his brother his “scam” would be counterproductive, a recognition that his addiction to the “game” was self-destructive. Mr. Kemnu’s Booth was the proverbial “bull in the china shop” – a ball of energy narrowly focused on what he wanted NOW and NOBODY better get in his way. Yet, there is a sadness there, too – the scene in which he waits until Two AM for a date who was supposed to arrive 6 hours earlier evokes not only pity (we’ve all been there), but also respect for someone whose impatience can be so patient. If there is one complaint I have about his portrait, it’s the final image of the play, which I won’t reveal here – it seemed more like a scripted moment than a real one.

I recommend “Topdog/Underdog” for several reasons – a script that heightens its characters without sacrificing their credibility, performances that sell the language and the situation and the characters, and a symbolic design that confounds our expectation by making an obvious symbol disappear instead of distract. In this case, taking our eye off the card leads to a win.

-- Brad Rudy (



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