Topdog/Underdog examines sibling rivalry with a twist

An upcoming play refers to one of America’s most divisive presidents, and no, not Donald Trump: Abraham Lincoln. Suzan-Lori Park’s play Topdog/Underdog, presented by the Seven Tyrants Theatre, is a two-person drama focusing on two brothers named Lincoln and Booth and runs from Nov. 24 to Dec. 3 at Studio 1398.

Director David Newham says he has seen a cycle of presidential campaigns touching on racism, sexism and classism. He also wishes to draw attention to murders of innocent young people in the United States, the police force and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Parks’s Pulitzer Prize win in 2002 with Topdog/Underdog is the first time a female African-American has been awarded this prize. Newman feels it was groundbreaking and ahead of its time.

“I think the story, the topic, the themes are almost more relevant today than they were in 2002 – the themes of class and race in America, and around the world. I feel it’s more a part of people’s modern day every day…now than it was in 2002,” Newman says.

Rich characters, rich relationships

Aadin Church as “Lincoln” and David Lloyd as “Booth” perform in Topdog/Underdog, a play by Suzan-Lori Park. | Photo by David Newham

Aadin Church as “Lincoln” and David Lloyd as “Booth” perform in Topdog/Underdog, a play by Suzan-Lori Park. | Photo by David Newham

Newham appreciates the play is written from an unusual point of view: the underdog of two African-Americans. He says the drama, which is rooted in a long tradition of brotherly rivalry, is funny yet heart-breaking.

Topdog/Underdog is being presented in Western Canada for the first time. Newham’s wife discovered the play while in New York in 2002.

“As a producer, I keep a list of plays in my mind that I hope to produce in the future. This has been one of them for me for the last 10 years. I think it’s just such a captivatingly well-written story. It’s a nice mix of iconic symbolism mixed with really cutting dialogue. The time was right for me to pull the trigger to produce it,” says Newham.

Aadin Church, who plays Lincoln, says the characters’ names may foreshadow the ending.

“It’s like naming characters Cain and Abel. You kind of guess that something’s going to happen to that Abel guy. Let’s watch,” says Church.

Church feels the audience will enjoy the play for not only its entertainment factor, but also the richness of the relationships.

“We explore a lot of levels of relationships and inner workings of it and how does it grow – either through blood or no blood,” he says.

In the play, the older brother, Lincoln, takes on a job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade.

“He sits in a Lincoln costume all day and tourists come in and take turns executing him. It’s very morbid,” says Newham, who was drawn to Park’s works because of their symbolic and anti-realistic nature.

Topdog/Underdog appeals to me because a lot of my work has been in the genre of more avant-garde theatre or more symbolic theatre – less real,” he explains.

Of family ties and race

Church says the play reveals the brokenness of these two characters whose parents left them when they were ages 16 and 11. Lincoln becomes the father figure for his younger brother Booth, played by David Lloyd. After Lincoln loses a friend to street violence, he decides to get out of hustling and get a regular job.

“Booth then lost respect for him when Lincoln stopped hustling because that’s all Booth wanted to do – he wanted to be like his older brother,” says Church.

Church says he can relate to Lincoln. He remembers his mother telling him that he had to hustle, or work harder, than everyone else.

“I took those words to heart because they’re always watching. Being a black guy in this industry, I feel like I’ve got to work that much harder for it and definitely make sure that when I show up I’m prepared,” he says.

Newham says the key element – the story about the two brothers –
could potentially get lost in the discourse around this play.

“The first and foremost thing is that it’s amazing drama about two brothers. The story is told from a point of view we don’t hear very often on the stages of Vancouver,” Newham says.

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