African Renaissance Theater deals fine performances in drama about sibling rivalry
“You’ve gotta know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em É” A card game as a metaphor for life isn’t a totally original concept, but what if that game is the classic street scam, Three Card Monte? There’s no chance or luck involved – the only winner is the guy who controls the cards.
Nor are there any real surprises in Suzan-Lori Parks riveting drama, “Topdog/Underdog,” the work that won her the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002. There’s a classical Greek inevitability in her characters’ fate. The theme of lives that can’t be won because of bad hands dealt recurs in this play as often as the hypnotic chant of the Monte hustler: “Who see th’ black card who see th’ black card I see th’ black card black card’s th’ winner.”
The characters are two brothers, living together in a single rented room. Their names are enough to hint of trouble. Lincoln, the elder, is a former master of Three Card Monte; he’s given up the street in favor of a more “respectable” but bizarre career. He works in an arcade, made up in whiteface to play Abraham Lincoln, the victim of wanna-be assassins toting cap pistols. Booth, younger brother and serial shoplifter, is unemployed, but dreams of duplicating Lincoln’s success as a hustler. He lacks the skill; his big brother is reluctant to teach him. Each in his way is trying to escape a life as empty as the 40-ounce empties lining their battered sideboard.
As Lincoln, Doug McCray is a big, easy-going lunk, satisfied with his decision to get out of the racket, but fearful of having his job outsourced to a wax dummy. In contrast, Oliver Pookrum, who also directs this production, is a human bulldog, delivering lines in a rapid fire staccato. The heavy contrast between characters brings real humor to a second act aside, when Booth speculates that perhaps they’re not brothers after all. The performances are even more satisfying in that – in the end – playwright Parks really doesn’t give her actors a lot to work with, and each has brought a fine character study to his role. They actually play her silences with the same intensity as they do her lines.
As brought to the stage at the Redd Apple Gallery, the African Renaissance Theater’s production is a claustrophobic cry of urban pain. One wonders how other, larger shows will play in this narrow space, but for the trapped brothers of “Topdog/Underdog,” no space is big enough to free their imprisoned souls.
“Topdog/Underdog” Staged Thursday through Sunday by the African Renaissance Theater at the Redd Apple Gallery, 227 Iron St., Detroit, through Jan. 2. Tickets: $15 – $40. 313-567-0712.
The Bottom Line: A disturbing commentary on race in America, this story of sibling rivalry teaches that who holds the cards determines the winners and losers.
More Tidbits: Other News from Around Town
Michigan Opera Theatre completes capital campaign
On November 16, Michigan Opera Theatre’s charismatic leader, Dr. David DiChiera, announced the successful completion of “The Crowning Achievement,” the final phase of the capital campaign for the Detroit Opera House, and revealed that Michigan Opera Theatre ended its 13th consecutive season with a balanced budget.
“The state of the Opera Company is stronger than ever,” declared MOT’s founder and general director.
MOT officially completed the third and final phase of the “The Crowning Achievement” by its target date of June 30, 2004. The campaign was initiated by a generous challenge put forth by The Kresge Foundation, providing an opportunity to achieve the goal in a relatively short period of time. The campaign exceeded its original goal of $20 million, raising in excess of $21 million from 450 donors.
Now celebrating its 34th opera season, MOT began its journey in 1989 with the acquisition of the property on the corners of Broadway and Madison in downtown Detroit. More than $24 million was raised in the first capital campaign, enabling the Opera Company to raise the curtain on the magnificent Detroit Opera House. The second capital effort, “The New Century Fund Campaign,” launched in 1999 with the historic visit by the Three Tenors, raised $18 million, with which the company began to pay down its construction debt, renovate the Broadway faade and finish the Madison Office Tower which now houses Michigan Opera Theatre’s administrative offices, as well as elegant patron service areas, including the Herman and Barbara Frankel General Director’s Circle Lounge and the Cadillac Cafe.
The $21 million raised by MOT’s latest effort will be divided among five initiatives: $5 million to complete the $10 million Ford Center for Arts and Learning ($5 million was raised during the New Century Fund Campaign), $1 million to supplement an endowment, $9 million to pay off the construction debt, $4 million for a parking facility and additional funds for decorative painting.
“With the success of ‘The Crowning Achievement,’ the Detroit Opera House is now poised to become a true community resource, in our time and in the future, offering not just opera and dance on the main stage, but a place for everyone to experience the power of art, to learn something unexpected and to express creativity,” said DiChiera.
The Detroit Opera House is located at 1526 Broadway in downtown Detroit. Complete information regarding the Michigan Opera Theatre and the Detroit Opera House can be obtained by calling 313-961-3500 or by going online to www.michiganopera.org.