By Sheri Radford
“Watch me close, watch me close now. Who see the red card, who see the red card? I see the red card. The red card is the winner. Pick the red card, you pick a winner. Pick a black card, you pick a loser.” So begins Topdog/Underdog, with a card-hustle chant that repeats and echoes throughout the play, underscoring the theme of winners and losers.
Lincoln (Michael Blake) and Booth (Luc Roderique) are brothers whose father, in a sick but seemingly prescient joke, named them after Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Blake and Roderique both turn in powerhouse performances as the constantly sparring brothers.
Lincoln used to be the king of three-card Monte, but he left the game after tragedy struck. For years he followed the rules, making a living by portraying Honest Abe—in white face, no less—for tourists pretending to be John Wilkes Booth and firing blanks at the president. But then his wife booted him out and now he lives with his brother in a shabby rooming house.
Unemployed Booth shoplifts to survive. He practises his three-card Monte patter and pines for his on-again-off-again girlfriend Grace (who’s never seen onstage) while begging Lincoln to teach him the cards.
Who will emerge as top dog in their turbulent relationship and who will be the underdog? And can a black man ever truly be top dog in a world rigged towards whites? Those are just a few of the questions this Pulitzer Prize–winning play explores. See it until Feb. 11 at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre.