The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Set in a seedy urban studio apartment, Topdog/Underdog explores the relationship between two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, so named as a joke by their father. A former master of the con game three-card monte, Lincoln earns his living by donning whiteface and impersonating Abraham Lincoln in a local arcade, where patrons pay to re-create the former president’s assassination with an assortment of cap guns. He has recently been kicked out by his former wife, Cookie, and has moved in with his younger brother, Booth. Nicknamed 3-Card, Booth earns his living by stealing, or “boosting” as he calls it, what he needs. He dreams of becoming a more accomplished and celebrated dealer of three-card monte than his brother. The first half of the play develops this central conflict: Lincoln is content to work at the arcade, earn his paycheck, and take his dose of whiskey, which the brothers affectionately call “med-sin,” while Booth dreams of the prestige, the money, and the women that could be his, with Lincoln’s help, as a hustler of three-card monte.

Lincoln resists Booth’s attempts to draw him back into the world of three-card monte. He left the game when his partner was murdered, and though he resents his position at the arcade, he is glad to earn an honest living and even takes a certain pride in his work. In a scene that is both humorous and foreboding, Lincoln practices his arcade routine with Booth, who suggests that he make the assassination more dramatic. Lincoln experiments with several groans and gestures as Booth pretends to shoot him. In contrast, Booth finds Lincoln’s job demeaning and tries repeatedly to persuade Lincoln to pick up the cards so they can work as a team. The siblings take different approaches to their struggle for survival; when Lincoln receives his paychecks, one of the first items in the budget is the bottle of whiskey that takes their minds off their dismal surroundings and their bleak prospects.

In their cramped and dilapidated quarters, Lincoln and Booth relate to each other in primarily combative ways. Though they share lighthearted, even mutually respectful moments, as when Lincoln brings home his paycheck, or when Booth shows Lincoln the new suits that he...

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Topdog/Underdog Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Parks sets the tone for the relationship between Lincoln and Booth with their names, suggesting an opposition that will culminate in violence. She further foreshadows a disastrous end throughout the play. In the opening scene, Lincoln returns home in his costume and whiteface, and a startled Booth draws his gun. “You pull that one more time,” Booth yells, “I’ll shoot you.” In scene three, Booth pretends to shoot Lincoln in order to help him practice his routine; but Lincoln’s exaggerated death throes disturb him. “Something about it,” he explains to Lincoln. “I dunno. It was looking too real or something.” The animosity that builds between the brothers, Booth’s quick temper and bravado, and the presence of a gun, all signify the likelihood of bloodshed.

Parks also uses the three-card monte game as a central metaphor in the play. The game relies on deception and distraction, and its premise is that one can win only when they are allowed to win. “Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh played,” Lincoln explains after he has defeated Booth in the play’s final scene. “And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning.” Lincoln understands the nature of the game. In a broader sense, this understanding characterizes Lincoln’s approach to life. He is satisfied to reenact the assassination of his namesake for paying customers. In three-card monte, as in life, there is no winning. In contrast, Booth cannot see this principal. He still believes that he can win; when he loses, with his girlfriend Grace, and ultimately with Lincoln, his only recourse is violence.

Topdog/Underdog The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Topdog/Underdog is divided into six scenes, spanning approximately one week from a Thursday night to a Thursday night. The time of the play is specified as “now,” and the location as “here.” The set throughout is the seedy rooming-house room of two brothers, Lincoln (Link) and Booth (3-Card). The characters’ names were their father’s idea of a joke, but they also serve as to foreshadow the troubled relationship between the two men. Link works at an arcade, dressing up in whiteface as Abraham Lincoln and “dying” on cue when “shot” by customers. Booth wants to be a three-card-monte hustler; he works on his routine and tries to get Link, who was once apparently an especially proficient “thrower,” to teach him his tricks; Link refuses.

The next scene opens with Booth reaching inside his large coat and pulling out two complete suits of clothes, which he has stolen. When Link enters with his paycheck, Booth talks about impressing his girlfriend, Grace, and convinces Link to give him more than his share of their money. The scene ends with Link practicing his arcade act.

Late that night, Booth brags about his sexual escapades of the evening, but it soon becomes clear that Booth is at least exaggerating and probably making up the entire story. The conversation turns to cards, and Link offers to set Booth up with his old crew. Booth will, however, need a better weapon than the “pop gun” he currently carries. The men also discuss the prospect that Link might soon be replaced by a wax dummy at the arcade. Booth wonders if Link fears that someone might come to the arcade with a real gun, but Link professes no uneasiness. Booth then coaches Link on...

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Topdog/Underdog Historical Context

The Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln

As the American Civil War was drawing to a close, President Abraham...

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Topdog/Underdog Literary Style


Topdog/Underdog is less fantastic than some of Parks’s other plays. Though the set design...

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Topdog/Underdog Topics for Further Study

Write a short monologue from the perspective of a member of Lincoln’s crew. How does this crew member view the mark and the dealer? What...

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Topdog/Underdog Media Adaptations

Although no audio recording of the play’s production currently exists, a DVD entitled The Topdog Diaries provides a...

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Topdog/Underdog What Do I Read Next?

The plays of Suzan-Lori Parks have been noted especially for their reworking of history to provide audiences with political and social...

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Topdog/Underdog Bibliography and Further Reading


Brustein, Robert, “On Theater—A Homeboy Godot,” in the New Republic, May 13, 2002, p. 25.


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Topdog/Underdog Bibliography

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Craig, Carolyn Casey. Women Pulitzer Playwrights: Biographical Profiles and Analyses of the Plays. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. The chapter on Topdog/Underdog includes both a biography of Parks and a good critical overview of the play.

Dietrich, Jon. “Making It ’Real’: Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog.” American Drama 16, no. 1 (Winter, 2007): 47-74. Discusses motifs such as money and sexuality and underscores the theatrical as well as the literary values of the play.

Foster, Verna. “Suzan-Lori Parks’s Staging of the Lincoln Myth in The America...

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