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Everything you need to know about 'Topdog/Underdog' on Broadway

Suzan-Lori Parks's Pulitzer-winning play returns for its 20th anniversary.

Diep Tran
Diep Tran

A Black man working as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator may seem like a strange topic for a play, but Suzan-Lori Parks’s explosive Topdog/Underdog made a success of it. That conceit earned Parks a Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominations for its premiere Broadway production in 2002. Now, the play is back for its 20th anniversary, with performances running through January 15 2023 at the Golden Theatre.

Topdog/Underdog stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins as brothers: one named Lincoln, the other Booth. Their story is at once intimate and epic, showing how their troubled past shaped their present and asking whether they can pick themselves back up with each other's support — or else will be each other's downfall. Learn more about this acclaimed play's plot, characters, celebrity stars and more below.

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What is Topdog/Underdog about?

Topdog/Underdog started out as a joke of a thought that came to Parks one day. "I thought, 'Oh, man, I should just — that'd be cool, two brothers, Lincoln and Booth,'" she told The New York Times in 2001. "Ha, ha, ha, it's funny. To me, it's funny." She ran with it, making the character of Lincoln a Black man who works as a Lincoln impersonator at an arcade, where he has to pretend to die every time a customer "shoots" Lincoln with a gun filled with a blank. His younger brother is named Booth, after the man who actually shot President Abraham Lincoln.

Their father, like the playwright herself, named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke. Now, Lincoln and Booth's parents have long abandoned them, and they live together in a boarding house. Booth, the younger brother, steals to get by, but dreams of becoming a three-card monte card shark. Booth tries to persuade Lincoln, who was once excellent at the game, to go back to it.

Booth and Lincoln's dynamic is familiar to anyone who is a sibling. "They switch constantly," said Parks. "They're always trying to be the dominant person in the room. They always ask, 'Who the man? Who the man? I'm the man now! No, I'm the man!'" Throughout Topdog/Underdog, they talk about the tedium of their life and their attempts to let go of the past and move out of their current circumstances, but soon, their power struggle comes to a head and brings life-changing consequences.

Topdog/Underdog is a top American play.

Topdog/Underdog first premiered Off Broadway at The Public Theater in 2001 before moving to Broadway in 2002, and it ran there for five months. In 2002, the play earned Parks the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making her the first Black woman to ever win that award.

In 2018, the Times ran a list of the 25 best American plays since Tony Kushner's Angels in America. At the top of that list was Topdog/Underdog, which the Times described, despite having one set and two characters, as “epic” and “both a vivid, present-tense family portrait and an endlessly reverberating allegory.”

Topdog/Underdog has always attracted talented actors.

Even from its humble days at the Public, Topdog/Underdog had an incredible team behind it. Tony winner George C. Wolfe (Angels in America, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk) directed that run, with Jeffrey Wright playing Lincoln and Don Cheadle playing Booth. Tony winner Wright was in the original cast of Angels in America and would later star in Westworld. Cheadle is known for his roles in Hotel Rwanda, Black Monday, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He's also an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) nominee — he's only won a Grammy and Tony, but he is one of few Black artists to be nominated for all four major awards.

For the Broadway run, Cheadle had to leave the show because of film obligations. In an unexpected twist, he was replaced by Yasiin Bey, then known as the rapper Mos Def, who made his Broadway debut in Topdog/Underdog. Bey had been a fan of the show Off Broadway, seeing it multiple times.

"It's like the first time you hear Hendrix, or [Coltrane's] 'Love Supreme'; Topdog was like that for me,” he told the Washington Post.

For this Broadway revival, a new generation of talented actors play Lincoln and Booth. This revival stars Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, an action star known for Watchmen and Aquaman, as Booth in his Broadway debut.

Abdul-Mateen had loved Topdog/Underdog since college, saying he actually performed scenes from the play during an acting showcase there. Abdul-Mateen told Vulture the play felt like “the first piece of theater that was written for me.” He said yes to Broadway because of Topdog/Underdog, and because he “had it in [his] brain” since college.

Opposite him as Lincoln is Corey Hawkins, whose latest theatre-adjacent gig was the In the Heights film. He's also a Tony nominee for Six Degrees of Separation.

Topdog/Underdog is a sleight of hand.

The characters were named Lincoln and Booth as a joke, but the play asks whether they’re doomed to repeat the fates of the people they were named after, or if they can change. Said Wright, the original Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog, to the Times: “The play is perched on top of a historical inevitability. Suzan talks about it as an existential question. At the end of the play, is their destiny fulfilled, or were they supposed to do something different and they missed?”

The play doesn't answer this question until the very end, but there are plenty of twists and turns in between. Topdog/Underdog is both a tragedy and a comedy, and just when audiences think they know what might happen, the show surprises them.

It's fitting that a play about three-card monte tricks the audience so much. Three-card monte is a scam game where, if played right, the person running it always wins by sleight of hand. Hawkins told Broadway.com that he and Abdul-Mateen had to learn how to run a three-card monte game, which symbolizes the brothers' power struggle.

“We have to learn it and understand the game. That’s a whole world in and of itself. We talk about secrets and the secrets that we keep from each other. And how much Lincoln shares about that game with his brother, and what he knows that secret could do,” Hawkins said. “It’s a sleight of hand, it really is. And literally until the last seconds of the play, you’re kind of guessing … just like when you’re watching three-card monte.”

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