Their names were intended to be a joke. Instead, they foreshadow a tragic fate.
In Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Topdog/Underdog,” issues of race and poverty are put through a surreal kaleidoscope to chilling and often humorous ends. Our guides on this journey are two African-American brothers: one named Lincoln, one named Booth.
Abandoned by their parents when they were young and forced to fend for themselves, the brothers walk a fine line between rivalry and camaraderie. Booth, a thief, aims to become a three-card monte hustler; Lincoln, improbably, has found work impersonating his namesake at an arcade where people pay money to enact assassinating him.
“At its heart, it’s about two brothers,” says Jeremy V. Morris, who plays Lincoln in the TheatreLab production opening this week at the Basement. “Their story is so layered and so powerfully moving and tragic. This is definitely one that is ripe to be peeled back and examined.”
In a show filled with big ideas and metaphors, Morris reads the three-card monte con game that he and his brother play as an allegory for how the system is rigged against poor people of color in America. He also points out the imagery of his character portraying Abraham Lincoln.
“The symbol of that: a black man re-enacting the shooting death of a man who is considered to be the Great Emancipator over and over,” Morris says. “There’s so many directions that can go, and it weighs on his psyche.”
Jamar Jones, who portrays Booth, says his character is troubled but full of heart.
“You really get pulled into the world of these brothers,” Jones says. “You can laugh, you can cry. It just pulls on your strings in so many different ways.”
In bringing “Topdog/Underdog” to the stage, director Katrinah Carol Lewis says hitting the right notes of humor and pathos hasn’t been easy.
“The tone of the piece is an interesting challenge, because it’s at times hysterically funny and unbearably tragic,” Lewis says. “There’s levity in the dark moments. Even [when] they’re cracking each other up there’s this gravity of the circumstances and the weight of the circumstances that’s always there.”
A boon in the trio’s effort to stage the show is the fact that all three work together as historical interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg, which Lewis says has given them a sort of shorthand.
“They’re both incredibly big-hearted actors – funny, honest, heartbreaking,” Lewis says of her cast. “They play off one another beautifully.”
Part of the challenge for Morris has been mastering three-card monte. While Lincoln has sworn off the con game, he was once a master at it, and performs it for Booth after some goading.
“The execution of it requires dexterity, a little precision, and also requires some showmanship,” Morris says. “I have to bait you. I have to make you believe that you are important. I have to bait you into believing your eyes.” In telling this tale, Morris hopes audiences will take away the message that these characters are deserving of compassion. “These two men have experiences and have a story that needs to be told about how men hurt, how these sorts of experiences can affect the lives of families,” he says.
TheatreLab’s “Topdog/Underdog” plays May 25 through June 9 at the Basement, 300 E. Broad St. For information, visit theatrelabrva.org or call 506-3533.