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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