Suzan-Lori Parks


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Topdog/Underdog Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 32-page guide for “Topdog/Underdog” by Suzan-Lori Parks includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 6 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Telling of History and Money and Providing.

Plot Summary

Topdog/Underdog, by Suzan-Lori Parks, premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2001 and opened on Broadway the following year. In 2002, the play earned Parks the distinction of becoming the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize. Parks won a MacArthur Genius Grant the same year. Like most of Parks’s plays, such as The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire Universe (1990), Venus (1996), and Father Comes Home From the War, Parts 1, 2, & 3 (2015), Topdog/Underdog raises issues of racism in the United States and the construction of history and national identity. Lincoln, one of the main characters in Topdog/Underdog, evolved from the Foundling Father, a character in her 1994 work The America Play who is also a black Lincoln impersonator.

As Parks describes in her introductory note to the Dramatist Play Service acting edition, “his is a play about family wounds and healing. Welcome to the family” (4). The play takes place over the course of about a week. Lincoln and Booth, who are black, are brothers living together in Booth’s tiny apartment after Lincoln’s wife kicked him out. Now in their thirties, the brothers have been on their own since their parents abandoned them when Lincoln was 16 and Booth was 11, leaving them each with a $500 inheritance. Lincoln used to have a successful illegal career hustling three-card monte and now works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade allowing tourists to reenact the Lincoln assassination by shooting him with blanks. Booth, in his older brother’s shadow, desperately wants to be a hustler like his brother was and impress his girlfriend, Grace.

At the end of the play, Booth lives up to his name when, after Lincoln wins his inheritance in a round of three-card monte, Booth shoots Lincoln from behind and kills him. The final scene ends with Booth cradling his brother’s body and screaming. Topdog/Underdog shows how history, whether personal, familial, or cultural, shapes the present. Parks’s signature style involves rhythmic dialogue and heightened dialect, which is less overt in Topdog/Underdog than some of her more esoteric works but still evident in its language structure and unique use of punctuation. Abraham Lincoln represents a mythological figure in the national imaginary of American, and particularly African American history. But the simplified and romantic depiction of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator obscures the history of the real man. Parks reimagines Lincoln’s legacy through a black man in whiteface who remains long after the historical Lincoln’s death to sit and accept endless reiterations of enacted violence and hatred on his behalf.

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