In the character notes before the play begins, Suzan-Lori Parks identifies Link as the eponymous “topdog” and Booth as the “underdog.” This immediately establishes a fraught power dynamic. Link is older, which puts him in a position of power, and this is further reinforced by his employment and seemingly greater financial security. Booth, meanwhile, struggles constantly to live up to and exceed his brother; this can largely be seen in his efforts to take up three-card monte after Link has supposedly given up cards. It is a typical manifestation of sibling rivalry, which turns dangerous and ultimately deadly by the end.


The play is inherently connected with history on a broad scale due to the names of the two main characters, Lincoln and Booth, and Lincoln’s job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Personal and familial history inform the character development of the two brothers, while national history influences the plot and foreshadows the final climax. As the drama progresses, we are slowly exposed to more of Link and Booth’s family story, which highlights the brothers’ own dysfunctions. Booth is the one who witnesses their mother in the process of leaving, which then problematizes his future relationships with women. This is seen most specifically in his on-again, off-again relationship with Grace and his efforts to keep her from leaving him, as evidenced by his decision to steal an engagement ring half a size smaller than her actual size so that she can never take it off. Meanwhile, Link’s personal history is what comes back to haunt him. He quit card hustling after his closest associate, Lonny, was shot on the streets, but he picks it up again after losing his impersonator job. This similarly foreshadows a poor end for Link because shortly after he resumes three-card monte, he too meets his end.


As with many Pulitzer Prize winners, death is...

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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The title of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama suggests a fundamental struggle for power between Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog). The brothers have established a successful, though tenuous, symbiosis in their living arrangements at the play’s onset. Lincoln supplies the money and Booth provides what material comforts he can successfully steal. As the drama progresses, however, the prospects for their futures bring the siblings into conflict. Booth, the underdog, looks toward a future in the streets as a hustler of three-card monte. In contrast, Lincoln, the topdog, is satisfied with the modest earnings from his job at the arcade and has no wish to return to the streets. The prospective paths of each brother intersect when Lincoln loses his job, and with it the relative stability of the shared household. While Lincoln turns to his skills with the cards, Booth resorts to violence as an outlet for his physical and emotional anguish, first in the killing of his girlfriend, Grace, and finally in his assassination of his brother.

Parks also provides an unusual critique of history in the play. The conflict between Lincoln and Booth is a historical one. They remember their personal histories in different ways. Long-held animosities, buried through the intervening years, are eventually uncovered, compelling Lincoln and Booth to rethink their relationship throughout the play. However, Parks suggests that the conflict being played out between...

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Suzan-Lori Parks insists that there are no symbols in Topdog/Underdog, that it is simply a play about two men in a room. Still, it is difficult to believe that a play in which a character named Booth shoots and kills a character named Lincoln is devoid of larger meaning. The irony extends to Link’s job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and to the uncanny parallels between their parents’ departures: Their mother gave Booth five hundred dollars and vanished; their father, two years later, gave Link the same amount of money and similarly disappeared. Some critics have also pointed to parallels between the two brothers and the biblical Cain and Abel. The two men are in some ways complementary facets of the same character.

As in her earlier plays, Parks employs semi-phonetic spellings of some words and calls attention in the text to moments of silence. The diction, stylized and often laced with obscenities, suggests both the prosaic sounds of everyday life in the urban United States and the poetic rhythms of rap music. Parks’s love of theatricality and her distaste for absolute realism shine through in the details. It is difficult to believe, for example, that Link’s job could ever be held by an African American, that Booth would be able to shoplift two complete suits (including shoes), or that the street-smart Booth would forget that the mark only guesses the right card when the hustler wants him to. Topdog/Underdog thus plays out as more of a parable than a realistic drama. It is, in short, more about its context, its language, and its characters than about its events.


(Drama for Students)


The play is imbued with a strong sense of history, though it is of a more personal nature than the type of...

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