Arts and Culture

Louisville’s Actor’s Choice theater company opens a production of Kentucky native Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Topdog/Underdog” this week. 

“Topdog/Underdog” is the story of two adult African American brothers who struggle with poverty, work, racism, the lure of crime and their own close yet tense relationship. Directed by Kathi E.B. Ellis, “Topdog/Underdog” opens  January 10 at the Henry Clay Theatre

Born in Fort Knox to a military family, Parks was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. A screenwriter who has penned scripts for Spike Lee (“Girl 6”) and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”), Parks was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant in 2001. 

Director Kathi Ellis says “Topdog/Underdog” is a deconstruction on race and history in the United States, told through the “brilliant rhythm and cadence” of Parks’ dialogue. 

“It’s absolutely, recognizably contemporary, and yet it is also highly theatricalized,” says Ellis. “Without wanting to sound too crazy, in some ways it’s very Shakespearean. It’s condensed in a very poetic way.”

In the play, brothers Lincoln (Keith McGill) and Booth (Brian Lee West) were abandoned by their parents and have grown up dependent on one another. As adults, Lincoln and Booth enjoy a fraught and complex relationship. Older brother Linc was a proficient card hustler, a master of the con game Three-Card Monte, with skills younger Booth still longs to learn. Lincoln left his life of crime behind for an even stranger job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator in white-face, while Booth still plies the petty theft trade. 

Ellis says it wasn’t easy to find a local consultant who could teach her actors how to handle the cards like street professionals. (“I don’t know, maybe we asked all the wrong people.”) When she did finally find a Three-Card Monte player to teach her cast, for these particular roles, she says, the skills aren’t all in the wrist.

“It’s kind of like rubbing the tummy and patting the head,” says Ellis, with a laugh. “Not only do we need the dexterity with making the Three-Card Monte look like it’s believable, but they also have incredibly long monologues at the same time, because Suzan-Lori Parks has re-created the patter that goes with the hustle.”

“Topdog/Underdog” runs through January 20. Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with Sunday matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($17 for students and seniors) and can be reserved by calling (502) 495-8358.