Review: “Topdog/Underdog” at Collective Consciousness Theatre

Noah Golden

  • OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic

Although the temperature outside dipped unseasonably below 30 degrees, you couldn’t tell in the small, New Haven black box where Collective Consciousness Theatre calls home. That’s because the two terrific actors on stage generated enough sparks to light a bonfire in their compelling production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog.” This is my fourth time returning to Collective Consciousness, a small-but-mighty company that produces politically-charged,contemporary playsthat focus oncharacters of color.Although clearly on a shoe-string budget, Collective Consciousness knows how to produce high-quality work that is fresh and exciting to the New Haven community yet never outstretches its means. In fact, the intimacy of the space and the no-frills presentation are not a blight on Collective Consciousness’ record, but perhaps its strongest feature. How often do you get to see fantastic professional actors work only steps away from the front row? How often do you get to see strikingly original and diverse plays for under $25 a seat?

Although I’ve been a fan of Collective Consciousness since my first trip, “Topdog/Underdog” (which I’ll henceforth refer to as T/U) is the best show I’ve seen so far from them – compelling, rich and gorgeously written. Parks’ script, which won the Pulitzer in 2002 and landed on our list of the best 21stcentury plays, is a multi-layered and complex meditation on brotherhood, fate, race and the human condition. There’s a near-Biblical scope to this story of two feuding brothers (a knock-off print of The Creation of Adam hanging on David Sepulveda’s dingy apartment set didn’t go unnoticed) and a running theme of how toxic masculinity, especially in the Black community,impacts our history. Yet despite the heavy dramaturgical ideas, “T/U” never gets weighted-down in metaphor. Parks’ dialogue is rhythmic and energetic; there are moments of mesmerizing, heated dispute and others that are surprisingly funny. It’s a genius script, but one that takes two top-notch actors to pull off. Thankfully, Tenisi Davis and Terrence Rigginswere more than up to the task.

When we first meet Booth (Davis) he’s clumsily practicing three-card Monte on a ramshackle table. Booth, who spends his days shoplifting and mooning after his unseen sweetheart Grace, wants to start hustling cards on the street like his older brother Lincoln. A one-time master of the Monte, Lincoln (Riggins) got out of the scheme some years ago and vows to never touch the cards again. Instead he’s working at an arcade, dressed as Abe Lincoln in a dusty jacket, tall hat, fake beard and, yes, whiteface make-up. All day, he sits in a shoot-‘em-up reenactment game where the goal is to recreate John Wilkes Booth’s famous Ford Theater assassination. It may not be a thrilling job, but it seems to suit the worn-out Lincoln just fine and be the final punchline of a cosmic joke played on the boys at birth: their abusive,drunkard of a father named them Lincoln and Booth on a whim.

The two acts find Lincoln and Booth struggling to come to terms with their future – the uncertainty of the arcade job, the study of three-card Monte, Booth’s prospect with Grace – and the boys’ past. Lincoln has a failed marriage behind him and a propensity to drink heavily just like his absentee father. Booth inherited his mother’s wandering eye. With “T/U,” Parks isn’t so much interested in dense plotting as character development and theme. That is not to say nothing happens, the play does climax in a striking and emotionally fraught finale, but that many of the best parts of “T/U” come from just watching these two brothers interact.

Riggins, who played Martin Luther King in last year’s “The Mountaintop,” brings a weary dignity and emotional depth to the stage. With a whisky-soaked drawl and forlorn eyes, his Lincoln only really comes to life when expertly juggling a trio of cards. It’s a perfectly pitched, magnetic performance without a single false note. The flipside is Davis’ Booth, a bundle of unbridled energy and charisma. Playing off Rigginsflawlessly, Davis gets to showcase both his comedic chops (a sequence involving a stolen suit is downright hilarious) and a mature, multilayered side we didn’t get to see in Collective Consciousness’ earlier ensemble piece “Stories Of A New America.”

The captivating performances are well-orchestrated by director Dexter J. Singleton, whose swift but unobtrusive staging kept the play moving even in the saggy mid-section. With so much focus on dialogue rather than action, it would be easy for “T/U” to become repetitive or visually dull. But Singleton’s keen sense of tempo, both in movement and dialogue, avoidsany of those traps. If one could find fault here, it would only be in the maddeningly long scene changes that ultimately ate up a lot of the well-earned dramatic tension and continuity.

Truth be told, there is much more I would love to say about “T/U.” This is the kind of play that could take a few college lectures to unpack in its entirety. But all that – the Biblical motif I pointed to earlier, the use of characters as unreliable narrators, the historical significance of the brothers’ namesake – would lead into spoiler territory. What can be said is that, like its contrasting title, “T/U” is a play that about how littlecontrol we have over our lives.

“Ain’t nothing lucky about cards,” Lincoln says about Monte, “Cards ain’t luck. Cards is work. Cards is skill. Ain’tnever nothing lucky about cards.”The brothers never had much luck, but they do have skill. A knowledge of throwing cards, of surviving in a harsh world. But the luck of repeating the failures of our fathers (and our founding fathers) is always there. The odds are not any better than finding that deuce of spades at the Monte table.Photo: Riggins, as Lincoln, and Davis as Booth. The play runs weekends through Nov. 19. Mike Franzman for I Love New Haven Photos.