Review: Invictus Theatre Delivers a Living History Lesson in Topdog/Underdog

The way we are taught American history is a scratch-the-surface deal that requires us to keep digging. Playwright Suzan Lori-Parks is a master excavator of history and reveals it in the most wondrous ways. Parks' Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog tells the story of two brothers named Lincoln (Mikha'el Amin) and Booth (DeMorris Burrows). These men have been navigating a hustler's world since they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Topdog/Underdog is directed brilliantly by Aaron Reese Boseman with a raw intensity that draws laughs and horror in the same breath.

Lincoln and Booth were given those names by their parents as a cruel joke, setting them up for a codependent rivalry while they raised themselves. Lincoln is a master three-card Monte hustler who left the con game after one of his crew is killed. He now plays Abraham Lincoln in whiteface at an arcade, replaying the assassination for amused tourists. Booth is a shoplifter who depends on his brother's weekly $214 salary to pay the rent on a seedy one-room flop. Topdog/Underdog is a unique Parks universe, a quantum dystopian and privileged world with an underclass created to feed the fears and expectations of the upper class.

Burrows is perfect as Booth with the face of an angel wanting to be like his big brother and to be just as good at the hustle of life. Burrows seamlessly turns sinister when he feels a betrayal or abandonment. He speaks of walking in on his mother having sex with her side guy, seemingly unaware of him standing there. It is inferred that she and the man both knew but did not care. Her children were disposable and got in the way of her escape from a crap life with children who she never wanted. Booth wants love and independence but he is never prepared for it and life will not allow it.

DeMorris Burrows and Mikha'el Amin. Photo by Through Line Studios.

Amin gives a searing performance as a tortured soul who mastered the life of hustling but also lost everything that he was working toward. Lincoln's wife kicked him when he gave up three-card Monte and wasn't hustling a few grand a week. He is willing to call a humiliating job of being fake-assassinated several times a day steady and secure until he is replaced by a wax dummy. Lincoln's memories are of watching his father have sex with various women and then being invited to do it himself. He is willing to tell Booth that their parents were a whore and a drunk. Amin has the moves and the rap of the Monte hustler down and on point thanks to Cardisrty expert Keenan Odenkirk. I remember watching the con men on the Dan Ryan El taking advantage of the people who lived on the other side of Vincennes. When Lincoln brags about taking some businessman's salary or some gullible group's money it is a point of pride. His sorrow at having to leave the game is just as poignant as his reasons for having to be in it.,

Mikha'el Amin. Photo by Through Line Studios.

Topdog/Underdog is another brilliant production from the Invictus Theatre Company under artistic director Charles Askenaizer. Their previous productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ruined, and The Crucible were all four-star reviews by me and other publications. Boseman has directed A Raisin in the Sun and The Mountaintop for Invictus. I am proud to say that he is a homegrown product of Chicago's South Side. The set design by Kevin Rolfs leaps off the stage and is a character in the play. The disconnected sink, peeling wallpaper, and ragged furniture look as if they should smell of cigarettes, urine, and lingering body odor. Brandon Wardell's light design is soaked in ochre tones that elevate the dark subject matter and dire circumstances.

Suzan Lori Parks is a provocateur and a master of the allegory for the American Dream being achieved at the expense of the larger part of America. The dream is not an illusion; it is a lie that has been perpetrated by those who have always had to those who will stay on the hamster wheel at all costs. Dystopian America is not the future in Parks' work. It is happening in the present and has one hell of a punch. No matter what you presume that you know, it will leave you breathless.

Topdog/Underdog is playing through March 31 at the new Invictus Theatre Company home, Windy City Playhouse, 3104 W. Irving Park Road. Please visit www.invictustheatreco.com for tickets and info. Support Chicago's live theater community!

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.