Topdog/Underdog as Three-Card Monte
Suzan Lori-Parks’s Pulitzer prize winning Topdog/Underdog has been regarded as a variety of things; both a play that marks a turn in Parks’s work to naturalism yet also a play that is metatheatrical when least expected, a play about two brothers but also about an American president and his killer, a play that delves into real vs. fake while also being a complete illusion. The seemingly contradictory nature of Topdog/Underdog is perhaps the point. It serves as a distraction, guiding focus here, while everything of importance happens over there. Thus, the play itself is a hustle, an embodiment of the game that runs throughout it. Parks presents the play as a three-card monte dealer presents the cards, setting up the audience as her mark.
Indeed, every single element of Topdog/Underdog is a hustle, a version of three-card monte, whether it be the play’s form, characters, or setting. The totality of this hustle is significant, and to understand it, one must analyze the play through the lens of a three-card monte dealer who knows the interdependent and flowing movements of the game in a cohesive manner. In other words, to narrow analytic focus to miniscule details is to be hustled out of realizing the larger picture, for if only its form, for example, is understood as a hustle, it can serve only as a critique on style and theater. Instead, Topdog/Underdog in and of itself is the hustle, and thus, shows that most things are, whether it’s history or our perception of performance versus reality.
The importance of three-card monte reveals itself before the play even properly begins, through Parks’s list of “The Players,” which introduces us to Lincoln as the “the topdog” and Booth as the “the underdog” (2). This relates to three-card monte in two key ways. The first is the naming of the brothers, as there is no doubt that when there are two characters named Lincoln and Booth that Booth will end up killing Lincoln. As Michael LeMahieu argues:
For there to be drama in a play where a character named Booth ultimately shoots and kills a character named Lincoln, the audience must simultaneously keep in mind and forget that the outcome is foreordained, must recognize the ending as both inevitable and yet somehow not determined … As with three-card monte, the audience derives pleasure from observing a performance whose outcome is known in advance (35).
Consequently, Parks begins her hustle. To enjoy the play she has presented, one has to be convinced that there is some chance that Booth won’t kill Lincoln, despite knowing very well that he will. Or, to put it in the terms of three-card monte, the mark has to convince him or herself that there is a chance at winning despite the understanding that it’s a con. The second relation to the hustle is the distinction between topdog and underdog which, according to Patrick Maley in his analysis, is more aptly described through “the vocabulary of three-card monte: Lincoln is the dealer and Booth the mark” (187). Thus, the only characters the audience gets to actually see in Topdog/Underdog are characterized by three-card monte and the conflict between the hustler and the hustled, with Booth serving as a kind of faux-mark to distract the audience away from the knowledge that they are the real mark. In these ways, before the play even begins, the audience is presented with the idea that the play is a hustle and to enjoy it one must be willing to be hustled.
As LeMahieu goes on to argue, the form of the play is also a hustle. Popular reception of Topdog/Underdog saw it as a turn to naturalism for Parks, following a linear narrative and exhibiting stark realism that points to fatalistic themes. Yet, the play is no less metatheatrical than Parks’s other works, argues LeMahieu, and to characterize Topdog/Underdog as an “exclusively naturalistic play, therefore, must downplay its patently and self-consciously metatheatrical elements, focusing more on the content of the lines delivered than on the performative aspects of their utterance” (34), yet LeMahieu lacks synthesis by not combining the different elements of three-card monte within the play. It is not enough to simply declare the form of the play as a hustle, as the form is intricately woven with Lincoln and Booth as characters, and three-card monte as a hustle.
In LeMahieu’s argument, it is essential to see both the content and the performative aspects within Topdog/Underdog, likewise, to throw the cards a dealer has to understand the sleight-of-hand and how to lure in the mark. Three-card monte, just like the form of the play, is a mix between mechanics and performance. The ability to understand the form of the play is one and the same as the ability to understand three-card monte. Lincoln, as a dealer, recognizes the plurality of the cards, while Booth, more aligned with the audience as the mark, focuses only on the performative aspect. This is clearly represented when Lincoln is helping Booth with the cards:
LINCOLN: theres 2 parts to throwing thuh cards. Both parts are fairly complicated. Thuh moves and thuh grooves, thuh talk and thuh walk, thuh patter and thuh pitter pat, thuh flap and thuh rap: what yr doing with yr mouth and what yr doing with yr hands.
BOOTH: I got thuh words down pretty good.
LINCOLN: You need to work on both.
BOOTH: K. (75)
It is obvious in this portion of the play that Lincoln could easily show Booth the sleight-of-hand portion of the game, but he doesn’t. Just as Lincoln keeps Booth in the dark to remain topdog, Parks does the same to her audience.
This dichotomy of topdog and underdog, dealer and mark, sharp and naïve is demonstrated through Lincoln’s mastery and Booth’s inept focus. Booth is overly concerned with “thuh talk” (75), and, writes Dietrick, “values word over action, symbol over referent, appearance over essence” (49-50). This is easily seen through Booth’s reactions to Lincoln based on his clothes. Booth hates when Linc continues to wear his costume from work, saying “I dont like you wearing that bullshit, that shit that bull that disguise that getup that motherdisfuckinguise anywhere in the daddy-dicksticking vicinity of my humble abode” (9) versus saying to Lincoln “You look sharp too, man. You look like the real you … Like you used to look back in thuh day” (30) when Lincoln is wearing the boosted suit. For Booth, the clothes make the man and the performance makes the person, or rather, the three-card monte dealer. He is focusing on all the wrong elements, both in the game and the entire plot. When Lincoln wins Booth’s inheritance, it is because Booth is focused on the card, rather than the mechanics of the game or Lincoln’s obvious building of the mark’s confidence.
As Booth is hustled out of his inheritance, the audience are hustled out of seeing the majority of events that occur in Topdog/Underdog due to the setting presented. The audience is only able to watch the lives of Lincoln and Booth unfold through the lens of their home, while the majority of plot, until the end, happens outside of the singular room. In other words, the audience can only focus on what is presented by the dealer as the black card, while everything else moves around in a confusing rhythm. Family history, Lincoln’s employment, sex, murder, and drinking all happen outside of the room, just as moving parts, such as the stickman and the lookout, function outside of the game. Due to this limited focus, the audience is deceived, thinking that there is a prevailing brotherly bond and that Booth is getting married. Just as Booth is deceived through his misguided focus that he will be able to win three-card monte. It is only in the end that the card is flipped over, and it’s not the black card at all, but rather the red card: the fact that Booth has shot and killed Grace, and does the same to his brother. The audience transitions from being unknowingly aligned with Booth to being presented with both the expected and an unexpected ending.
Thus, through the characters, form, and setting, the entirety of Topdog/Underdog is a hustle, with Suzan Lori-Parks being the hustler. Yet, the play is not simply a hustle for the sake of hustling, but rather to make a larger point about history and society as a whole. Maley argues:
Lincoln’s hustling of his brother thus underscores the play’s larger critique of specious notions of self-fashioning and social advancement in contemporary America … The topdog, that is, suggests that he will support the underdog’s social ascent. But Lincoln understands the threat of such an ascent and therefore constantly works to keep his brother down and his position secure (198).
Yet, Lincoln’s hustling of his brother does not simply underscore the play’s critique of society, but instead the play itself is designed as a hustle in order to critique multiple concepts and ideas in addition to society. The hustling of the audience causes the audience to pay attention and ask: if a play can be a hustle, what else is?
Certainly the history, culture, and stories, as well as the social mobility of African Americans has been hustled right out of their hands. Structures of power and dominance are often redirecting attention, in the same way that the three-card monte dealer does, as non-visible components rig the system against the mark. Three-card monte, like social mobility, presents itself as based on skill and merit, when in fact, it is impossible to win. On this, Maley writes:
The story is that President Lincoln not only ended the institution of slavery but also created an American social structure allowing former slaves and their descendants the same access to advancement as other citizens. History reveals the hypocrisy of such a notion, but Topdog goes further to suggest that the claims made by present-day American society that an oppressed people has access to upward mobility are a scam designed to manipulate, subjugate, and exploit (192).
The all-encompassing nature of hustle in Topdog/Underdog suggest that its application in regards to history is all-encompassing as well. When it comes to Abraham Lincoln, the focus is only put on his freeing of the slaves and John Wilkes Booth as a kind of antihero in American history, yet, as is apparent in Topdog/Underdog, this misguided, narrow focus leads to ruin.
Topdog/Underdog ends in Booth getting hustled by his big brother because of his emphasis on only the performative, while the audience is hustled through the narrow focus presented to them. Thus, the play asserts the notion that Booth and the audience are lacking plurality and the ability to see the importance of the bigger, cohesive picture. It is then impossible to understand the implications of Topdog/Underdog without viewing the hustle in its totality. To focus only on its hustling of traditional theatrical forms or the parallels between the game and the characters is to miss importance in other areas within the text, in the same way that only focusing on specific aspects of history ignore and/or erase the significance of oppressed voices in the historical narrative.
Dietrick, Jon. “Making It ‘Real’ : Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks's
Topdog/Underdog.” American Drama, vol. 16, no. 1, 2007, pp. 330-346.
LeMahieu, Michael. “The Theater of Hustle and the Hustle of Theater: Play, Player, and Played in Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog.” African American Review, vol. 45, no. 1/2, 2012, pp. 33-47.
Maley, Patrick. “What Is and What Ain't: Topdog/Underdog and the American Hustle.” Modern Drama, vol. 56, no. 2, 2013, pp. 186-205.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. 1999. Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2002.