Topdog/Underdog

Topdog/Underdog Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Suzan-Lori Parks

Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1963 to a military family. Because of her father’s post in the army, she moved frequently as a child, even living in Germany for a short stretch of time before returning to the United States, where she eventually attended Mount Holyoke College. During this time, she took a writing class with James Baldwin, who recognized her talent and encouraged her to pursue playwriting. Although Parks is most widely known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog, she has also won awards for her plays Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom and Venus. In 2003, she wrote Getting Mother’s Body, a novel, and in 2005 she helped Oprah Winfrey adapt Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God into a made-for-TV movie. She currently teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
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Historical Context of Topdog/Underdog

The play’s two main characters, Lincoln and Booth, are named after prominent historical figures: President Abraham Lincoln and his assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth. In 1865, the final year of the Civil War, the Confederacy (a group of pro-slavery southern states that seceded from the United States in 1860) was failing in its fight against the Union in support of states’ rights and slavery. Only five days after General Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army) surrendered to Union forces, John Wilkes Booth (a famous actor and fanatical Confederate supporter) snuck up behind President Lincoln in a theater balcony during a play and shot him in the back of the head. In the chaotic aftermath, Booth jumped off the balcony and onto the stage, injuring his leg but still managing to escape. President Lincoln died early the next morning, and Booth was later captured and killed in a barn in Virginia. President Lincoln’s death devastated the nation, though it did nothing to reverse the fate of the Confederacy—the Union solidified its win of the Civil War the following month. At the end of the play, Booth (the character, not John Wilkes) shoots his brother, Lincoln, thus echoing the famous assassination of President Lincoln.

Other Books Related to Topdog/Underdog

First and foremost, Topdog/Underdog owes one of its defining conceits—a black man who works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator—to The America Play, which Suzan-Lori Parks wrote in 1992. In this play, a black gravedigger resembles and adores President Lincoln, so he works as an impersonator, allowing his customers reenact John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln. In the foreword to the 2002 edition of Topdog/Underdog, Parks explains that she was thinking about this character when she suddenly had a new idea for a play: “This time I would just focus on this [character’s] home life. This new Lincoln impersonator’s real name would be Lincoln. He would be a former 3-card monte hustler. He would live with his brother, a man named Booth.” Topdog/Underdog is often compared to other plays and novels that explore racial identity because its main characters are two young black men struggling to survive in America. When the play premiered, the theater critic Ben Bentley likened its interest in “the existential traps of being African-American and male in the United States” to Ralph Ellison’s magnum opus, Invisible Man. Similarly, people often consider Topdog/Underdog in tandem with August Wilson’s Fences, a play about race, masculinity, and family.
Key Facts about Topdog/Underdog
  • Full Title: Topdog/Underdog
  • When Published: The play premiered on July 26, 2001
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Theater
  • Genre: Contemporary Theater
  • Setting: Booth’s New York City apartment
  • Climax: Booth shoots Lincoln after Lincoln cons him out of his inheritance money
  • Antagonist: Although for all intents and purposes Booth is the antagonist, he has a number of redeeming qualities, and both brothers ultimately wrong one another. The difference, though, is that Booth harms Lincoln irreparably by shooting him in the neck.

Extra Credit for Topdog/Underdog

Fateful Typo. Suzan-Lori Parks’s first name is supposed to be spelled with an “s” instead of the “z,” but an advertisement for one of her first plays accidentally wrote her name using the “z.” Rather than trying to correct this, she decided to embrace the new spelling. 

Star-Studded Cast. When Topdog/Underdog first opened, Booth was played by Don Cheadle (known for his roles in Hotel Rwanda, Ocean’s 12, and Crash, among many other films) and Lincoln was played by Jeffrey Wright (of Westworld and The Hunger Games). When the play ran on Broadway, the rapper and actor Mos Def replaced Cheadle as Booth.