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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Topdog/Underdog


Mixed Blood's Topdog/Underdog is the best hustle in town

"Oh God, oh God, oh God," moans Booth, cradling his brother Lincoln at the close of Pulitzer Prize-winner Susan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog. "Oh God, oh God," I celebrate: I am so fortunate to live in a town that produces theater of this excellent caliber.

And, oh, what a difference a small space can make. In the intimacy of Mixed Blood Theatre's old firehouse, on a small thrust stage, I was practically in the dilapidated room of Russell Methany's shabby set, with Booth and Lincoln, sharing every nuance of their humor, rage, play and pain. I found this production twice as powerful as the Topdog I saw on Broadway in 2002 at the barn-like Ambassador Theatre. There, the set looked lost on the huge proscenium stage, my expensive seat was too distant from the action for me to hear every word of actors Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright and, when Booth set up his room divider, he cut off half the stage for me.

But every minute of Mixed Blood Theatre's Topdog, co-produced with the Studio Theatre in Washington, DC, sings with wit, poetry and the hurt of two talented grown brothers trying to make it in a contrary world. But, having raised themselves after being abandoned by their parents, their talents belong to the street and on the nether side of the law.

Topdog/Underdog
(standing) Thomas W. Jones II and
(seated) Jahi Kearse

Lincoln, played by Mixed Blood alum Thomas W. Jones II, is the older brother and a master three-card monte street-hustler; but Lincoln is trying to go straight. He works as a sideshow attraction, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, white-face and all. Customers impersonate Booth, creep up behind him and mock assassinate him. It's demeaning but honest work. Lincoln has been thrown out by his wife and camps on a recliner in Booth's squalid room. Jahi Kearse plays younger brother Booth, a slick, fast-talking boy of a man, who longs to work three-card monte with the skill and success of his older brother. At present, he's a practiced shoplifter, who's proud of not holding a job. Inept with the cards, he nags Lincoln to teach him the finesse of the three-card hustle.

Joy Zinoman directs and draws superb performances from both actors. These two men feel like real brothers; the invisible tie that binds their lives in an unpredictable mix of knowing, needing and resenting each other feels authentic. Each is the only foundation the other has. When Lincoln hands over his meager Friday pay to Booth, their hilarious vaudeville routine has the playfulness of a game rehearsed since childhood. Frustrated sexuality crowds the room, and deep hurts from their empty past emerge. Their rivalries flare and tip over into sudden rage, as the power between older and younger brother shifts and slips.

Jones' knowing Lincoln, the older brother, is the ideal foil for Kearse's electric Booth. Lincoln resists the cards with the same desperation that an alcoholic resists the bottle. When he takes them up, heaviness evaporates. Hips and shoulders move like a riff of jazz, hands dance, tongue patters: "Who see thuh red card, who see thuh red card? I see thuh red card. Thuh red card is thuh winner." Put money on the cardboard playing surface, and steel enters Jones' Lincoln.

Kearse finds the heart of volatile Booth. He's beautiful, but fly and quick as a knife. Like a needy child, he's anxious to impress, vulnerable, violent and absolutely winning. He lights up the stage with his energy and impulsiveness, but he cannot bear to be shamed. Everything he touches, has the flair of an artist. When he returns from "shopping," he unloads like a magician pulling tricks from a hat. He brings flair to everything, except the cards and his relationship with unseen Grace.

Props designer Michelle Elwyn and costume designer Reggie May provide the physical evidence of Booth's flair with a flair of their own.

Zinomen directs with fine touches. Booth grabs his crotch, like a frightened boy, in moments of tension. While he waits for Grace, he tremors one leg in a nervous twitch. A fallen card, dropped in the first scene, stays onstage throughout the performance.

Underlying this theater magic are the good bones of Park's script that is rich in small symbols, little things like Lincoln dousing a candle and Booth's hope in a dinner scene. At play's end, Booth's "inheritance," stuffed into his mother's old nylon stocking, feels like a tenuous umbilical connection that he cannot bear to have cut.

Topdog is a play in the Twin Cities absolutely not to be missed.

Topdog/Underdog November 12 - December 14. Wednesdays - Fridays 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 7:00 p.m. $10 - $22. Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501, South Fourth St., Minneapolis. Call 612-338-6131, or online at www.mixedblood.com.


Photo: Carol Pratt



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Elizabeth Weir



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