At CCT, A Tale Of Two Brothers

 Riggins, as Lincoln, and Davis as Booth. The play runs weekends through Nov. 19. Mike Franzman for I Love New Haven Photos.

Riggins, as Lincoln, and Davis as Booth. The play runs weekends through Nov. 19. Mike Franzman for I Love New Haven Photos.

It’s the first time in a long time that Lincoln is dealing cards. He is on a roll, tall and upright, eyes ablaze. Booth watches the flutter of his hands as a red card whizzes past a black one, then past another red. The top of the table is a piece of cardboard, its legs are two mismatched black milk crates. We are home. Someone’s home.  

“You don’t know what is, you don’t know what ain’t, you don’t know shit,” Lincoln says, motioning for his brother to choose a card. It is life advice that renders everything crystal clear, for exactly a moment. But only a moment. 

Such is the world of Suzan Lori-Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, on now through Nov. 19 at Collective Consciousness Theatre (CCT) in Erector Square. Darkly funny as it is devastating, the play opened last Thursday night to a full house.

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From its outset to its end, Topdog/Underdog is a play about the cards we are dealt, what we do with them, and who is in on the con. We open on brothers Lincoln and Booth—as in, the 16th president of the United States and his assassin—so named as a joke from their now-absent parents. Lincoln, five years older, is working as his namesake at an arcade, a job for which he must wear whiteface and sit in a chair while people mock-assassinate him. It is not exciting work, he tells Booth (and by extension, the audience), but it is more honest than his time as a dealer for three-card monte, which almost got him killed.  

That doesn’t move Booth, who has long lived in his brother’s shadow and wants to become a dealer for three-card monte. Not just a dealer, but the best dealer for miles around. A man who makes his living scamming people. He is propelled by unmoored, and perhaps misled, desires: for card-game prowess, for the clothes that he slickly steals, for a single woman whose affection is unattainable and gnawing. For a life free of the poverty in which he and his brother live. And he wants to use a well-known con to get him there. 

Not even five minutes in, the bones are there for a story that is specifically class-based, yet instantly relatable. Lincoln and Booth are 30-year-old black men, living in a tended-for but crumbling apartment, where the toilet and running water are down the hall. But their woes are woes we all have: girl trouble, job trouble, bills trouble, various vices and addictions.  

The two are also haunted by a global, and deeply fraternal, question: Do we undercut even those we love to get ahead? When can we trust them, and when do we decide it’s enough to cut our losses?   

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That’s where cast members Terrance Riggins (Lincoln) and Tenisi Davis (Booth) bring Lori-Parks’ heady, realistic wordstorm of a script to life. Nothing in it is without meaning, or without a point of intersection. Overlapping narratives travel on a crash course towards each other at full speed, with twists and turns that are exhausting as they are necessary. A testament to Lori-Park’s extraordinary sense of timing, there is a gun on stage, and we’re never sure exactly when it’s going to get shot.   

Both characters seize on this pacing and suspense, making for some breathless moments in the show. From his first proclamation of “Watch me close watch me close now; who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card. Pick-thuh-red-card-you-pick-thuh-winner,” repeated like an incantation, Davis is so fully Booth, reaching deep into the character’s relationship with brotherhood, parental abandonment, lust and betrayal until we fear him nearly as much as he fears himself.

He is nimble with the show’s dark humor, peeling off layers of stolen clothes in one scene to laughs from the audience, as if to say Yeah, I get it! This really is a Russian doll of a play. But he is also sweet, declaring “It was you and me against the world,” to Lincoln in one of the loveliest moments of the play. 

Riggins too is mesmerizing as Lincoln, fierce and measured in his delivery of a character who is deeply conflicted, and still at war with some weighty inner demons.  He is warm and candid when the play demands that of him, but mostly a level-headed kind of fighter, who is trying not to let his circumstances overpower him. He is depressed, and complacent, and happy he’s alive. 

Against a cozy but distressed set designed by David Sepulveda, the two try to make things work, ultimately duking it out in a game of three-card monte that doubles as a game of life. And so, we are left to grapple with one of Lincoln’s last and most powerful lines, as he caves to the weight of the world on his shoulders. 

“It’s the first move that separates the players from the played,” he says to Booth.  

They are standing across from each other, shoulders squared, eyes blazing. Their entire past is in that sentence: parents, the love interest, the ex-wife. What each knows the other is keeping from him. And the future is sprawled out in front of them. As Lincoln speaks, it seems like the declaration is for the brothers alone.  

By the time the lights go down, we’re not so sure. 

Topdog/Underdog runs Thursdays through Saturdays Nov. 9-11 and 17-19 at Collective Consciousness Theatre in Erector Square. For ticket prices and additional  information, visit their website.