What is Suzan-Lori Parks saying in Topdog/Underdog by naming her characters Lincoln and Booth?

Expert Answers
Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her play Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks draws many parallels between her two African-American characters Lincoln and Booth and the two historic figures they are named after. One parallel is socioeconomic.

In the play, Lincoln, as the older brother, is the provider of their two-person family. He is proud of his job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and of the little it can provide for himself and his brother. Meanwhile, Booth gets what he can through dishonest means such as robbing and attempting to pull con jobs. At the start of the play, Booth is trying to learn how to play three-card monte, a street con that has the potential to be lucrative. Booth wants to find enough economic means to be able to marry the girl of his dreams, Grace. However, Booth isn't making much progress in learning the con his brother is already very adept at. In the opening scene, Booth asks Lincoln to teach him the game, but Lincoln refuses, reminding his brother he had promised their mother to look after him and saying he would prefer to do "honest work." In reply, Booth shouts, "YOU STANDING IN MY WAY, LINK!"

One way in which the character Lincoln parallels the historic Lincoln is through the fact that the historic Lincoln saw himself as the provider and controller of the nation. Immediately after his inauguration in March 1861, seven states seceded from the union, and he denounced the states' entitlement to secede by asserting that, as the editor of "Abraham Lincoln: Domestic Affairs" phrases it, the "states had accepted unconditionally the sovereignty of the national government with ratification of the Constitution" (Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia). This shows that Lincoln saw the role of the federal government as being to protect the interests of the individual states while overseeing their actions, just as the character Lincoln feels it is his duty to protect and watch over his younger brother. In addition, such sovereignty as the historic Lincoln believed in and held on to required being in control of the federal government's purse, just as the character Lincoln was the breadwinner for his two-person family.

The character Booth parallels the historic Booth in that the historic Booth represented the desires of the South and the criticisms the South had of Lincoln's actions. The South desired to hold on to slavery because the free labor force was critical to the South's economy. Since Lincoln was an abolitionist, the South felt he was thwarting their economic security, just as the character Booth feels his brother Lincoln is thwarting his economic progress by refusing to teach him to play three-card monte. The character Lincoln echoes the historic Lincoln's sentiments when he says he wants Booth to do "honest work." In continuing to practice slavery, the South was acquiring wealth through immoral means, which can be considered dishonest work, just as pulling con jobs is considered immoral, dishonest work.