Pt. 1: What’s Your Position? Topdog/Underdog

Andrew Gombas, Staff Writer

Did anyone out there expect this play to be anything less than amazing? Let’s be perfectly honest here. Two of the biggest heavyweights in the Theater department, plus a talented faculty director backed by a wonderfully written play — it’s simple mathematics, folks. If you missed it, you should somehow be kicking yourself in the head. Topdog/Underdog follows two African-American brothers named Lincoln and Booth, who are struggling to find their place in the world years after they were abandoned by their parents. Wedged between the two is one brother’s addiction to (and the other’s fascination with) the hustling game three-card Monte. The play is terrifying, heartbreaking, hilarious and ultimately bone-chillingly disturbing, unfolding slowly in the one-room apartment where both brothers reside.

College senior Hayden Gilbert played Booth, the younger brother, who is obsessed with learning how to hustle three-card Monte. He is manic, insecure and naïve, a clearly vulnerable character who is doing everything in his power to look tough. Gilbert knocked the role out of the park, storming across the stage in an unpredictable rampage that could be as frightening as it was funny. One of Gilbert’s greatest strengths as an actor is his ability to change tactics dramatically while maintaining seamless credibility with the audience, and he was put to the test with Booth’s whirlwind emotions. Unsurprisingly, he handled it just fine, crafting a delicate and violent character who never truly left his boyhood behind.

Countering Booth’s restlessness is Lincoln, played with slow-burn grace by College senior Ralph Johnson. Johnson has always been able to pull big laughs without so much as a wink, and this show was no exception, although the laughs came with a guilty pinch. Lincoln is a recovering addict who gave up hustling to be an Abraham Lincoln impersonator whom carnival-goers can pay to pretend to shoot in the head. Most of the jokes are at his expense, and those that aren’t are at his similarly woe-begotten brother’s, so it’s hard to laugh without wanting to cry a little bit as well. Ralph is a brilliantly dynamic actor, and in Topdog/Underdog he got a chance to show off his chops. The shift in Lincoln’s character from the lethargy of the first act to the slick hustler in the second act was a wonder to behold, clearly a product of deep character work and hours of practice.

It is not surprising that these two enormously talented actors did a good job. What is surprising is how well the show worked as a whole. Firstly, each character was cast perfectly. Fun fact: They were originally intended to be playing the opposite roles, but the two decided to switch in the first week of rehearsal. We benefited. Each actor painted a detailed character that left no room for doubt in the audience. Secondly, the play was three hours long… but it felt like an hour and a half. Associate Professor of Theater and Chair of African American Studies Caroline Jackson Smith’s directing was completely on point. Yes, there were moments of claustrophobia (the whole show took place in one room), but it only added to the tension that pervaded the show. Finally, the music was amazing. Whoever was the musical consultant for that show deserves a Grammy…

It always feels good when, in a show like this, you can say goodbye to two actors whom you’ve grown to love over the years, especially when they’re showcasing their talents in such a concentrated way. Hayden and Ralph, we will miss watching you do your thing on stage. Thank you for sharing something so special with us, and bon voyage.