In Suzan-Lori Parks play, “Top-Underdog” two brothers are shown in the same urban environment, yet they exhibit distinct differences in behavior and attitude. The audience or reader of the play is presented with the world of Lincoln and Booth, their current situation, and the way in which the two brothers react to the predicaments they are in. The dreams that one holds dear in such a situation are viewed as amoral and illegal to one in different circumstances and ones attempts to rise above such is often viewed as pathetic and demeaning.
The play attempts to explain how two financially strapped brothers attempt to make it by in a world that has not been that kind to them. Lincoln in the play can be described as a more reserved character based on his actions and words. His disposition varies greatly with that of his brother and also his prior life events have been different before the play. This establishment and experience benefits him towards the end of the play where he returns to his old ways.
Booth attempts to become what Lincoln once was, but he is unsuccessful in his ventures because he has no prior knowledge or experience in hustling cards and living a life like the one Lincoln had prior. He attempts to emulate his brother and at the same time disrespects Lincoln at the same time. In the same respect Lincoln makes an honest attempt to rehabilitate his life and do honest work but, his efforts are in vain after he loses his job. Violence in this play is prevalent whether off screen or in the actual apartment in which the action is happening.
Fire arms are frequently carried by both of the characters in the play and in the first act, the audience witnesses that no individual is exempt from the direction the muzzle is pointing. Booth does not hesitate to pull a pistol on his only surviving family member minutes into the play, eluding to the ending of the last scene. This first instance of violence can be seen in the stage direction,” Booth, sensing someone behind him, whirls around, pulling a gun from his pants. While the presence of Lincoln doesn’t surprise him, the Lincoln costume does. (Parks p. 9). Violence is found in the past life of Lincoln also, when his partner was shot while he was hustling a game of cards. This event has been a factor to why Lincoln initially refuses to hustle cards at the beginning of the play. So, while Lincoln shows an aversion to violence in the play; his brother has had no prior convictions about using any means he desires when he feels threatened or frustrated. Booth uses violence to attempt to solve all of his current problems at the ending of the play.
Whether it is his only family member in the world or the woman he hopes to marry some someday, none are safe from this man once he feels they have cheated him in some way. This reaction of drawing a gun a loving one can be seen from the very beginning of the play and ultimately decides the action of the last scene. Booth is a character who actions are spontaneous and he does not always think things through before acting. The acts of violence shown by Booth can be interpreted as a sort of belated revenge towards his and Lincoln’s parents for having been abandoned in their youth.
Booth feels like he has no other choice but, to pull out his gun and shoot after being rejected by Grace and preceding the loss of his inheritance to his older brother. The inheritance that Booth receives in the play is a symbol of the trust between his mother and himself. He does not spend it since the disappearance of his mother and still keeps it wrapped in the packaging he received it in. He holds onto this package throughout the play because it is the only material object he has left from either of his parents since they abandoned him in his youth.
In the play we can see that Booth has had no prior strong relationship with his father as he has had with his mother and this emphasis is complete with the description of the burning of his father’s wardrobe and belongings. Thus showing a disconnection with the paternal figure in his life and establishing him as more of a mama’s boy within the text. This association with either parent can be seen also when the two brothers refer to each other as ma and pa respectively after Booth jacks the suits.
The deliverance of the inheritance to Booth is mirrored by Lincoln’s father giving his oldest son the five hundred dollars in a similar manner. This action of giving their children a sizeable monetary sum tends to bring up a thought that all individuals are given an equal opportunity at life and what you do with those resources dictates what you make of your life. Lincoln in this instance is used up in the sense he has already done what he could of with his life. He is retired from hustling, his wife has left him, and he is dependent on his younger sibling for living arrangements.
Lincoln is currently a has been and he is defeated by life, being subservient to his younger brother and employers. He comes off as a pathetic character in this context but, compared to the attitude and character of his brother the audience tends to relate to him more or at the very least they can root for him. Booth on the other hand has not made any radical decisions in his life and still retains the five hundred dollars of his inheritance. Lincoln comments on this ,”That’s like saying you don’t got no money cause you aint never gonna do nothing with it so its like you don’t got it. (Parks p. 17). Booth has made no commitment in his life and holds for dear life to this wadded up ball of cash. Whereas Lincoln has made an attempt to start a family and get a honest job Booth still dreams of being a hustler in the streets. Lincoln has already lived this life and his brother cannot learn from the mistakes he has seen his brother make in the past. Booth attempts to hustle cards but he has no prior experience in doing so, all he knows is that his brother used to and was successful at doing so. Lincoln understands the dangers firsthand of hustling cards.
Rightfully so he hesitates at teaching his younger brother how to throw the cards because he does not want Booth to be caught up in the same life he was once in. Booth is insistent in wanting to learn the game from his brother. He believes that there are no downsides to this lifestyle, Booth only sees the pros of hustling cards such as unlimited income, respect from the neighborhood, and affection from the female gender. This idea in Booth’s words can be seen in,”…Pockets bulging, plenty of cash! And the ladies would be thrilling! You could afford to get laid!
Grace would be all over me again. ”(Parks p. 20). Booth thinks that his brother has something against him when he does not teach him the tricks of the game and he is stubborn to his siblings protests of some other time. Lincoln’s pleas to his brother to just call this dream quits routinely falls on Booth’s deaf ears. Parks imagery in this play is not the most subtle in certain instances, such as having the better educated brother with a job wear white-face to his job every day. In Booth’s eyes this demeaning job is a mockery of what Lincoln could really be doing with his life.
With Parks having descriptions of Lincoln being shot and even an entertaining rehearsal of Lincoln collapsing and screaming for his job separates us from the idea that Lincoln will actually die somewhere during the play as in this point it would seem too obvious that it could not happen. When this occurrence eventually happens in the play it just feels predated and fruitless to the audience since this execution has been expected since the beginning of the first act. Parks does not make any serious attempt at making the audience disbelieve something that they thought would happen from the very beginning of the play.
Even though Booth has soon unkind words about the female gender, he still has a soft spot in his heart for Grace and he hopes that she will marry him. He even buys her a ring that is half a size too small so that she will be unable to take it off. Booth seems to have this obsession with holding onto the only things that he cares about and he will take the lives of anyone who takes those things away from him or attempts to remove themselves from his life. In this aspect Booth is a lonely character that only wants to be loved having lost his mother and only marketable skill is shoplifting.
Having lost the only two women in his life who he cared about, when confronted with his brother leaving him and taking his inheritance it is much easier to finally take Booth’s side at the end of the play. Lincoln has to become his old self again and a villain greater than Booth for anyone to be able to relate to his character in the slightest. In the context of the play and the relationship between the two brothers, the younger brother Booth appears to be the more feminine character of the two brothers. Mirroring his mother Booth seems to fit the model of a housewife of the two staying at home while his brother works.
He does the shopping or shoplifting for the two to provide the duo with fashionable accessories. Lincoln fits the role of a father or husband who has given up on his hopes and dreams in order to provide for his wife or child. Before going back to hustling the cards some of the few moments the audience could find Lincoln happy were when he was drunk with his brother. In this instance Lincoln truly is the father figure of the nation or his brother working long days only to be used up and unappreciated. The play paints the true turning point of Lincoln back into his old hustler self after he loses his job as the Abraham Lincoln impersonator.
This point highlights the transition from Lincoln having to be something that he is not every day to an activity that he excels at. He is able to throw away everything that he stood for up to that point in the play and with no hesitation go back to the life that he shunned earlier in the play. Everything that we thought about Lincoln has changed in such a short period of time that we truly do not have any time to accept it, since all the action happens outside of the apartment. It is difficult to comprehend that the only thing eeping our hero on the straight and narrow is his paltry job. In the culmination of the play the audience views that in Parks’ eyes the human condition is pretty grim. Our system of morals and righteousness is just a guise for others to view when we are socially or financially secure. Upon a closer review of the characters neither truly holds any higher ground as in that whatever you have can be taken away in the blink of an eye by those closest to you. Maybe Parks is just trying to tell the audience no matter what happens things just will never change.