Scene One

The play opens in a sparsely furnished boarding-house room. As Lincoln will point out later, the place has no running water, and the only bathroom is down the hall. Booth sits alone, practicing three-card monte with a cardboard playing board laid across two milk crates. He is clearly inexperienced and keeps stuttering as he plays, pretending to hustle someone for $500 and then running from imaginary cops. Lincoln enters the room, dressed like Abraham Lincoln in a long coat, top hat, and beard, with white powder on his face. Booth is distracted by his card game and startles when Lincoln appears behind him in the apartment. Surprised by Lincoln’s strange attire, Booth leaps to his feet,...

(The entire section is 1548 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Booth, an African American man in his early thirties, sits in a small, ill-conceived boarding-house room, playing three-card monte, a game of hustling and chance. His gaming table is composed of a plank across two mismatched milk crates. His manipulation of the cards is awkward, indicating a lack of skill and experience. Booth is startled by the entrance of his older brother, Lincoln, and he pulls a gun. Lincoln is dressed like his namesake, he wears a fake beard, and his face is whitened by stage makeup.

Link, as he is called by his brother, is employed as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator: He is assassinated in play by persons desiring to reenact history by pulling the trigger. Booth, on the other hand, is unemployed and deeply infatuated with Grace, the woman of his dreams. Because of his strong desire to succeed as a hustler, Booth decides to change his name to “3 Card.” Lincoln, prior to his new career as a presidential impersonator, had been a successful three-card monte player; he gave up the game after a close associate, Lonnie, was shot and killed by an irate customer. However, he is nervous about the security of his job reenacting history: It seems that he is about to be replaced by a dummy as a cost-saving move. He practices dying as Abraham Lincoln in an effort to defer his being let go.

The following evening, Booth enters dressed in an oversized coat, from which he extracts the booty he has lifted from various shops. In his cache are such disparate items as two new suits, girlie magazines, and a bottle of whiskey with two glasses. Though not skillful at three-card monte, he seems adept at shoplifting. Lincoln wants to practice dying, but Booth has a rendezvous with his girlfriend, a woman “so sweet she makes my teeth hurt.” Upon his brother’s departure for his date, Lincoln is left with the whiskey and begins to drink.

Upon his return from a successful date with Grace, Booth finds a drunk Lincoln. Because of his need to win Grace, Booth insists...

(The entire section is 817 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Topdog/Underdog, Parks returns to a motif that she introduced in The America Play (pr. 1993). In this work, set in “A great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of The Great Hole of History,” Parks introduces a black character called simply “The Foundling Father” who portrays a white-faced Abraham Lincoln in an arcade. The Foundling Father is shot repeatedly by “A Variety of Visitors” playing John Wilkes Booth. A cap pistol is placed to the back of the Foundling Father’s head, he is shot, he tumbles forward to the floor, and the Visitor proclaims a statement of his or her choice, some actually opting to ejaculate Booth’s famous quotation taken from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Topdog/Underdog, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 2002, requires a single interior set. In this play, Parks introduces two of her most realistic characters (a graduation of sorts from her previously identified “figures”) in the form of two brothers: Lincoln and Booth. The two share an apartment as well as their histories, aspirations, money, and women in what emerges as a tragic explosion of failed dreams. Lincoln at the beginning of the play is “The Foundling Father” from The America Play: He portrays President Lincoln at an arcade and is shot repeatedly for the sport and entertainment of paying patrons. The situation calls to mind Parks’s statements regarding repetition...

(The entire section is 550 words.)