Topdog/Underdog

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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Topdog/Underdog: Scene Five Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s Wednesday night, and Booth’s apartment no longer looks squalid and dirty. Instead of the makeshift cardboard box setup, there stands in the center of the room a table covered by a nice tablecloth and set with silver wear for a romantic meal. Alone in the apartment, Booth sits at this table looking nervous. Seeing one of his pornographic magazines poking out from under the bed, he jumps up and tries to stuff it out of sight. Talking to himself, he says, “Foods getting cold, Grace!! Dont worry man, she’ll get here, she’ll get here.” He then sits on the bed, smoothing two dressing gowns that spread out over the mattress. The gowns, the audience sees, have “His” and “Hers” written on them.
Throughout the play, it has become increasingly obvious that Booth actively tries to trick Lincoln into thinking his relationship with Grace is going well. However, this is the first time the audience comes to understand that Lincoln isn’t the only person Booth has been trying to convince—indeed, he has been deceiving himself, too. It has already been made clear that Grace hasn’t actually been having sex with Booth (a fact supported by his statement about needing to relieve himself), but nonetheless, he deludes himself into thinking that their relationship is so solid and stable that they might one day share matching pajamas. This is, of course, rather delusional, a notion reinforced by the fact that Grace doesn’t even care enough about Booth to come to his fancy dinner on time.
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Lincoln suddenly tries to open the door, but Booth darts over and keeps him from entering. “The casas off limits to you tonight,” he tells his brother. Lincoln tries to argue this by saying that when they were kids living in a two-room house, he frequently heard their parents having sex and would sing in his head to block out the sound. Thinking Grace is also on the other side of the door, he calls out, “Hey, Grace, howyadoing?!” After Booth tells him she hasn’t arrived yet, Lincoln reveals that he lost his job at the arcade. “I come in there right on time like I do every day and that motherfucker gives me some song and dance about cutbacks and too many folks complaining.” To make matters worse, Lincoln’s boss has decided to order the wax dummy as his replacement.
Lincoln’s story about hearing his parents have sex is perhaps a tactical move to convince Booth to open the door—knowing his brother is a person who likes the idea of “wip[ing] away” the past, he references their troubled childhood, perhaps trying to disarm Booth. When that doesn’t work, he resorts to a more straightforward tactic: admitting that he has lost his job. Still, though, Booth doesn’t let him in right away, which once more points to the notion that he’s comfortable opposing his older brother. Whereas most siblings would instantly comfort one another after a fresh hardship, Booth holds his ground against Lincoln, yet again reinforcing the competitive and combative streak that runs through their relationship.
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Lincoln muses aloud about returning to the arcade the following day and begging for his job back, but Booth strongly objects, saying, “Link. Yr free. Dont go crawling back. Yr free at last! Now you can do anything you want.” By this point, Lincoln has made his way past Booth and into the apartment, where he collapses into his reclining chair. He promises that he’ll leave when Grace arrives. “How late is she?” he asks, and Booth tells him that she was supposed to arrive at eight in the evening. “Its after 2 a.m.,” Lincoln points out, but Booth doesn’t say anything. The brothers change topics, talking about the fancy silver wear, dishes, and tablecloth, all of which Booth stole. “How come I got a hand for boosting and I dont got a hand for throwing cards?” he wonders. “Maybe yll show me yr moves sometime.”
For Booth, a steady job like Lincoln’s position at the arcade curtails freedom, whereas living the life of a hustler—a life full of deception—is liberating. Of course, he himself is totally unbound by any sense of permanence, and he only survives because Lincoln shares his paychecks. This is yet another complicated aspect of Lincoln and Booth’s relationship as brothers—Booth critiques Lincoln for being responsible while simultaneously depending on his income. When he says, “Maybe yll show me yr moves sometime,” he backhandedly frames his own inability to do anything but steal as something that falls to Lincoln to remedy. In this way, Booth relies on Lincoln while constantly trying to prove otherwise—this is perhaps why he’s often so eager to emasculate or demean his older brother.
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While Booth looks for Grace out the window, Lincoln sips from a bottle of whiskey and reminisces about their childhood, talking about a house they moved into with their parents when they were young. “We had some great times in that house, bro,” Lincoln says. “Selling lemonade on thuh corner, thuh treehouse, summers spent lying in thuh grass and looking at thuh stars.” Confused, Booth points out that they never did any of these things. Nonetheless, Lincoln retains his nostalgic tone, saying, “But we had us some good times.” It’s now after three in the morning, and Booth steps away from the window and pours himself a glass of whiskey. As he does so, Lincoln tells him he’s already spent the entirety of the severance package the arcade gave him.
Lincoln’s fabricated memories are strangely at odds with his normal acceptance of the painful facts of history. Indeed, in most other scenes he appears to understand that the past can’t be altered and that people must live with and embrace the ways in which their personal histories have shaped their lives. At the same time, his impulse to make his and Booth’s childhood sound more idyllic than it actually was does align with his earlier comment about how people like their history to “fold” up “neatly.” In the same way that the arcade customers are willing to acknowledge the painful national history of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination only when it’s presented in an appealing manner, Lincoln permits himself in this moment to think about his childhood by superimposing a sense of exaggerated happiness on it.
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“Why do you think they left us, man?” Lincoln asks Booth, referring to their parents. When Booth doesn’t give him a satisfying answer, he provides his own hypothesis, conjecturing that each of their parents “was struggling against” some secret pain from their pasts. When they bought their house, Lincoln guesses, they thought these struggles would suddenly leave them alone. “Them things would see thuh house and be impressed and just leave them be. Would see thuh job Pops had and how he shined his shoes […] and just let him be.” Trying to maintain a sense of optimism, Booth says, “Least we was grown when they split,” but Lincoln refutes this, remarking, “16 and 11 aint grown.” Still, Booth talks about their abandonment as if it wasn’t so bad, noting that at least both their parents didn’t leave at the same time.
Lincoln’s nostalgia—and his inaccurate portrayal of his childhood—only lasts for a short time before he asks his brother a difficult question about why their parents left them. This suggests that painful histories can’t simply be fabricated to be more appealing or palatable. Although Lincoln tries to present his upbringing as idyllic, he quickly acknowledges that his parents abandoned him and his brother. Booth, on the other hand, tries to downplay the negative elements of his past, seemingly protecting himself from admitting the pain his parents’ departure caused him.
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Related Quotes
Holding fast to his notion that their childhood wasn’t so bad, Booth says, “They didnt leave together. That makes it different. She left. 2 years go by. Then he left.” Furthermore, he says he doesn’t blame them for leaving behind such a normal, boring life. “You dont see me holding down a steady job,” he says. “Cause its bullshit and I know it. I seen how it cracked them up and I aint going there.” He then states that he no longer wants to make himself into “a one woman man just because [Grace] wants [him] like that.” As he speaks, he grows angrier and angrier at the idea that Grace might suddenly waltz into the apartment and act like she can get him to “sweat.”
Once again, Booth conceptualizes a responsible, “steady” lifestyle as something that inhibits a person’s capacity to live freely. Freedom, it seems, is very important to him, despite the fact that he is completely financially reliant on his brother. To prove that he deserves the kind of freedom he so desires, he announces that Grace can’t force him into a monogamous relationship—a somewhat humorous assertion, considering that Grace doesn’t even seem to like him enough eat dinner with him, let alone demand his fidelity.
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Hearing his brother’s tirade about Grace, Lincoln reveals that their mother told him to never get married, and Booth confirms that she told him the same thing. “They gave us each 500 bucks when they cut out,” Lincoln states, and Booth replies by saying that he’s going to give his kids this money and then leave, just like their parents did. He explains that when their mother left, she gave him his $500 rolled up in a nylon stocking and told him not to tell anybody—including Lincoln—about it. Two years later, their father left, but before he did, he gave Lincoln $500 dollars in a handkerchief and told him not to tell Booth.
The origins of the brothers’ competition with one another reveals itself in this moment. Indeed, it becomes evident that their parents pitted them against one another, giving them both money but instructing them not to tell one another, thereby implying that they can’t trust each other. Although the brothers have clearly told one another about their inheritances, their parents’ divisive instructions have nonetheless still affected their relationship.
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As Lincoln and Booth sit drinking whiskey and reminiscing, Booth says, “I didnt mind [our parents] leaving cause you was there. Thats why Im hooked on us working together.” After a short pause, Lincoln tells his brother that throwing cards is more complicated than it looks. “When you hung with us back then,” he says, “you was just on thuh sidelines. Thuh perspective from thuh sidelines is thuh perspective of a customer.” To prove his knowledge, though, Booth launches into an explanation of the scheme Lincoln and his fellow hustlers used to run—Lonny would convince marks to come play Three-Card Monte as they passed on the street. The game would look like it was already in progress, but the players would be co-conspirators pretending to be strangers. Meanwhile, Lincoln would deal the cards quickly and hope his “hands would be faster than [the] customers eyes.”
Once again, a tenderness reveals itself in Booth and Lincoln’s relationship. Although they frequently argue and sometimes exchange quite hurtful words (especially in Booth’s case), they’re also capable of showing appreciation for one another. As such, Parks yet again demonstrates the complex and multifaceted nature of brotherhood, showcasing the kind of bond that both produces and eases tension between these two men. On another note, Booth’s explanation of Three-Card Monte serves as an explanation to the audience about how hustlers meticulously manufacture circumstances so that passersby think they’re entering into a casual atmosphere, when in reality they’re stepping into a highly rehearsed routine. 
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When Lincoln hears Booth use the word “customer,” he instructs his brother that hustlers call the customer a “mark.” “You know why?” he asks, and Booth proves his knowledge by saying, “Cause hes thuh one you got yr eye on. You mark him with yr eye.” Lincoln pauses, digesting what Booth has said, until Booth prods him, saying, “Im right, right?” Suddenly, Lincoln says, “Lemmie show you a few moves,” and Booth quickly disassembles the fancy dinner table, taking off the table cloth to reveal that it was only covering the makeshift Three-Card Monte cardboard box. Sitting down at the Monte table, the brothers set to work.
It’s worth noting in this moment how quickly Lincoln gets Booth to forget about Grace simply by finally letting his little brother feel like he’s “right” about something. Indeed, when Booth correctly explains why customers are called “marks,” his confidence balloons, and he suddenly has no problem completely dismantling the fancy dinner table he had set for Grace. In turn, Parks reveals Booth’s priorities: above all, he’ll chase the feeling of being “right,” of being seen as knowledgeable and credible. Even his preoccupation with Grace is secondary to this fundamental struggle to prove himself both to his brother and to himself. 
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Lincoln instructs Booth, saying, “Theres thuh Dealer, thuh Stickman, thuh Sides, thuh Lookout and thuh Mark. I’ll be thuh Dealer.” Booth volunteers to be the Lookout because he has his pistol in his pants. Lincoln is startled to hear his brother has his gun on him at that moment, and Booth tells him that he always carries it. “Even on a date?” Lincoln asks. “In yr own home?” In response, Booth says, “You never know, man.” Before they begin to play, Lincoln makes Booth give him the pistol, saying that they don’t need a lookout to stand watch for the cops because there aren’t any in the area. As such, Booth declares that he’ll be the stickman, but Lincoln rejects this, saying that the stickman “knows the game inside out” and that Booth is unprepared to take on this role. 
That Booth says, “You never know, man,” when Lincoln asks why he carries a gun in his own home indicates how little he trusts his brother. And the fact that he has been carrying the pistol in preparation for a date with Grace suggests once again that he conflates violence and dominance with romance and sexual encounters. Whereas violence would be the farthest thing from the average person’s mind before a romantic dinner date, Booth arms himself in preparation for Grace’s arrival.
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“I’ll be thuh Side,” Booth determines, and finally Lincoln agrees. Commencing with the lesson, he says, “First thing you learn is what is. Next thing you learn is what aint. You dont know what is you dont know what aint, you don’t know shit.” At this point he pauses, staring at Booth until his little brother asks him what he’s looking at. “Im sizing you up,” he says, a statement that puts Booth on his guard. “Oh yeah?!” he retorts, but Lincoln merely states that the dealer always sizes up the crowd. Still, Booth protests this notion, pointing out that they’re supposed to be on the same team. “You save looks like that for yr Mark,” he adds. Nonetheless, Lincoln maintains that the dealer must always size up everybody, including the Side, who is inevitably part of the crowd.
It’s no surprise that Booth is instantly uncomfortable about getting “sized up” by his brother. After all, this is a man who’s so ill at ease even in his own home that he carries a gun in preparation for a romantic dinner. It’s no wonder, then, that he detests being surveyed by Lincoln, his older brother with whom he already feels competitive. Booth is so concentrated on how his brother is treating him that he seemingly fails to listen to Lincoln’s advice about what “is” and what “aint”—a failure worth keeping in mind as the play progresses and the brothers continue their discussions of Three-Card Monte.
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After having sized up the crowd, Lincoln says, “Dealer dont wanna play!” Booth explodes at this, reminding his brother that he promised to teach him how to play Three-Card Monte. By way of explanation, Lincoln says, “Thats thuh Dealers attitude. He acts like he dont wanna play. He holds back and thuh crowd, with their eagerness to see his skill and their willingness to take a chance, and their greediness to win his cash, the larceny in their hearts, all goad him on and push him to throw his cards, although of course the Dealer has been wanting to throw his cards all along.” Next, he explains that there are two parts to throwing cards: “thuh moves and thuh grooves, thuh talk and thuh walk, thuh patter and thuh pitter pat […], what yr doing with yr mouth and what yr doing with yr hands.” 
When Lincoln explains to Booth that the dealer always gives marks the impression that he doesn’t want to play, he essentially describes an essential truth about the nature of deception: the easiest kind of person to deceive is an overeager person who loses touch with reality. Indeed, these people end up taking on instrumental roles in their own deception because they’re eager to play a game that has been rigged against them from the beginning. This, it seems, is merely part of the dealer’s routine, a notion Lincoln underlines when he talks about the “patter” and the “pitter pat” a hustler delivers whilst dealing the cards. As such, Parks shows that, contrary to what an unsuspecting spectator might believe, deception is a highly ordered process designed to disarm marks and invite them to participate in their own undoing. It’s also worth noting that Booth seems susceptible to such deception, since he takes Lincoln’s act so seriously.
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Lincoln instructs Booth, telling him that a mark pays attention to the dealer using two “organs”: the eyes and the ears. “Leave one out you lose yr shirt,” Lincoln says. “Captivate both, yr golden.” As such, he tells Booth to always watch his eyes, not his hands, because the dealer tracks the position of the correct card with his eyes. Fitting this into his previous lesson, he breaks it down as such: his eyes are what “is,” his hands are what “aint.” In their first practice round, in which Lincoln moves the cards without speaking, Booth selects the correct card. He gushes with excitement, calling himself a “champ” while Lincoln remains “mildly crestfallen” (as the stage direction indicates). 
For perhaps the first time in the entire play, Booth manages to attain the upper hand over his brother. Though his triumph comes only in the form of a practice round—and one in which Lincoln isn’t even performing the entirety of his routine, at that—he still seizes the opportunity to gloat. By calling himself a “champ,” he once again reveals his emotional need to be seen (and to see himself) as a winner, as somebody capable of besting a naturally confident person like Lincoln. 
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In their second practice round, Lincoln adds banter to his routine, speaking quickly and saying things like, “Who see thuh black card who see thuh black card I see thuh black card black cards thuh winner pick thuh black card thats thuh winner pick thuh red card thats thuh loser […].” Once again, Booth identifies the correct card and explodes with triumph. “Yeah, baby! 3-Card got thuh moves!” he says. “You didnt know lil bro had thuh stuff, huh? Think again, Link, think again.” Annoyed, Lincoln says, “You wanna learn or you wanna run yr mouth?” Ignoring him, Booth goes on with his antics, poking fun at his older brother for thinking he has such unstoppably “fast hands.” Once again, Lincoln critiques his confidence, saying, “Thats yr whole motherfucking problem. Yr so busy running yr mouth you aint never gonna learn nothing! You think you something but you aint shit.” 
Once again, Booth eagerly snatches the opportunity to brag about himself, capitalizing on this rare moment to cast himself as a winner. When he says, “You didnt know lil bro had thuh stuff, huh?”, it becomes clear that he himself thinks Lincoln sees him as inferior. In turn, this belief fuels his sudden delight at beating his brother, and the competition between them once again comes to the forefront of the play’s relational and emotional considerations.
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Now Lincoln gives Booth the cards. As Booth slides them around the table, his hands move awkwardly and his banter is stilted. Lincoln breaks into laughter, telling his brother he’s too “wild with it.” As he laughs, Booth stands, puts on his coat, and puts his pistol in his pocket. Refocusing, Lincoln tells Booth to take a lighter touch, “like Graces skin.” Suddenly, Booth remembers how late Grace is—“Bitch,” he says. “Bitch!” Lincoln suggests that perhaps something has happened to her, but Booth thinks she’s just trying to make a “chump” of him. Lincoln offers to call her from the corner payphone, but Booth rejects the idea, saying, “Thuh world puts its foot in yr face and you dont move. You tell thuh world tuh keep on stepping. But Im my own man, Link. I aint you.” With this, he leaves the apartment, slamming the door on his way.
The difference between how Lincoln and Booth see the world is apparent in their respective reactions to Grace’s absence. While Lincoln worries that something has happened to her, Booth thinks she’s intentionally trying to make him look stupid. Here again, his insecurity informs how he responds, this time in an ominous way, considering that he puts his gun in his pocket before leaving the apartment (presumably to track down Grace). His parting words only serve as further evidence of his desperate attempts to make himself look like a confident and dominant man. “Im my own man,” he says, making a concerted effort to accentuate the fact that he can act independently of his brother (a notion that he has not yet necessarily proved, since he lives off of Lincoln’s income).
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