Fremont Centre Theatre
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks had previous works, such as The Sinner’s Place (1984) In the Blood ((1999) and Venus (1999), before she struck it gold, in this case the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, the story about two brothers trying to survive their individual circumstance and each other with TopDog/Underdog. When it ran off-Broadway in 2001, actors Don Cheadle, as Booth and Jeffery Wright as Lincoln starred. It would extend in 2002 when rapper/actor Mos Def took over Cheadle’s role.
Stephen Rider plays younger brother Booth; he dubs himself 3-card, after the card game three-card monte. As the play opens, Booth practices his hustle in a shabby looking one-room residence he shares with his older brother Lincoln (Jed Reynolds). The room looks like it needs a good cleaning with clothes and empty food boxes strewn about the furniture and floor. Booth comes out showing his skills as a master con. Lincoln comes in dressed like former president Abraham Lincoln in a stovepipe hat, black coat with tails and whiteface. He is tired, he is hungry, he just wants to sit down with his “medicine” (a flask of bourbon) and forget what happened at work. Unfortunately, Booth wants his older brother to help him perfect 3-card monte and Linc, as he is called by Booth, doesn’t want to hear it. Booth insists that Linc, “throw down the cards.” Lincoln adamantly responds with, “I don’t touch the cards anymore.” However, Lincoln finally gives in to temptation and soon finds himself not only picking up the cards but realizes he hasn’t lost his touch.
The brothers’ relationship goes high and low at different times. One minute they reminisce about the good times of their past and the next, they each recall their recollection of when their parents left them as children. Booth was 11 and Lincoln was 16 when their parents left—the mother first and two years later their father left. It’s this stain in their relationship that makes them react aggressive and sometimes violently toward each other. For his job at a run-down arcade, Linc dresses up as President Abraham Lincoln at. His walks around all day as people shoot him and he falls. He hates the job but reminds himself “it comes with benefits.” They are each others friend, enemy and shoulders to lean on. They need each other but at the same time resent it.
Rider, who was last seen in Academy Award winner Denzel Washington directed, The Great Debaters in 2007, is masterful in his role. He’s the younger brother with dreams of making it big and sees that he will reach his dreams with the cards which, will hopefully lead to richer endeavors. He walks tall with a confident swagger all his own, head up and a bravado that speaks volumes as he sizes up adversaries. As easily he gets mad and yells at his brother, Booth can just as easily become vulnerable and teary-eyed when the subject of his parents comes up. Rider’s ability to flow from harsh to heart broken is a marvel to watch. Reynolds is no slouch either.
Reynolds is simply amazing as the divorced, down-trodden older brother with an impressive name but distressing life. Reynolds is the progeny of two fantastic actors, renowned actress and 2008 Woman of the year Lissa Reynolds and James Reynolds from the popular daytime drama Days of Our Lives. So it’s easy where he gets those acting genes. As Lincoln, he knows his job is a joke. “I’m a brotha playing Lincoln,” Reynolds says ironically to Booth.
Parks has proven again how invaluable her work has become. She reminds me of a female version of the late August Wilson. While her words deeply touch the heart, it’s Rider and Reynolds that bring it home. Their laughter, anger and need to reconnect resonates with audience members. Their powerful performance is something of phenomena to watch and learn—for aspiring actors. These two are the future of the theater. .
Topdog/Underdog runs Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3p.m. until Saturday, September 18 at Fremont Centre Theatre located at 1000 Fremont Avenue, at El Centro, in South Pasadena. For ticket information call (866) 811-4111 or reserve online at www.fremontcentretheatre.com