Topdog/Underdog

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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Topdog/Underdog: Scene One Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It is Thursday evening and Booth sits alone in his dingy apartment, which contains one bed, an armchair, and a makeshift table made from a cardboard box and old milk crates. He’s sitting at this table when he delivers the play’s first lines, which he mutters to himself while practicing his routine as a Three-Card Monte dealer. “Watch me close watch me close now,” he says. “Who-see-thuh-red-card-who-see-thuh-red-card? I-see-thuh-red-card. Thuh-red-card-is-thuh-winner.” As he goes about moving the three cards across the cardboard table, his banter is clumsy and halting. Pitted against an imaginary player (called a “mark”), he wins and pretends to run away to a new street corner, claiming to have seen police officers and thus escaping his make-believe opponent.
In this opening scene, Parks immediately sets the audience up to see Booth as a competitive man who savors the idea of winning. Even though his Three-Card Monte routine is awkward and clumsy, he still imagines himself winning against his opponent. This is an indication that he doesn’t even care to entertain the idea of losing, a fact that suggests losing is, for him, unbearable. As such, he focuses all his mental energies on imagining himself as a winner. In the scenes to come, the audience understands that this is exactly the mentality that renders him so susceptible to deception himself. 
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As Booth practices “throwing the cards,” his brother Lincoln enters the apartment wearing an old frock coat, a top hat, and a fake beard. He is dressed as Abraham Lincoln, his face smeared in white paint. Sensing his brother’s presence, Booth twirls around and pulls out a pistol, which he points at Lincoln. “Man dont ever be doing that shit!” he says. “Who thuh fuck you think you is coming in my shit all spooked out and shit. You pull that one more time I’ll shoot you!” Lincoln explains that he was rushing to catch a bus, so he didn’t have time to take off his costume before leaving the arcade, where he works as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator who sits with his back turned while customers shoot at him with cap guns in imitation of John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.
The fact that Booth’s first interaction with his brother involves pointing a gun at him quickly alerts the audience to his violent and aggressive nature. Furthermore, the tableau of a man named Booth aiming a pistol at a man named Lincoln is reminiscent of America’s actual history, since John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln using a handgun. This image also pits the two brothers against one another, suggesting that—in alignment with their names—they’re natural enemies. 
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Booth tells Lincoln he hates to see him “wearing that bullshit” in his apartment. He instructs his older brother to take off the Abraham Lincoln costume, claiming he’s going to scare away women. When Lincoln asks, “What women?”, Booth says, “I got a date with Grace tomorrow. Shes in love with me again but she don’t know it yet. Aint no man can love her the way I can. She sees you in that getup its gonna reflect bad on me.” He proceeds by showing his brother a ring he got for her today. “Diamond,” he brags. “Well, diamond-esque, but it looks just as good as the real thing.” Apparently, he asked for her ring size and then stole this ring, making sure it was one size too small so “she cant just take it off on a whim, like she did the last one [he] gave her.” 
Booth’s determination to find a ring Grace can’t take off illustrates how possessive he is when it comes to romantic relationships. Indeed, this is a man so insecure about the possibility of losing his lover to other men that he feels he must claim her in a manner that undermines her autonomy. He exhibits a similar insecurity when he scolds Lincoln for dressing strangely in his apartment, revealing that he has an obsession with surface-level appearances. This is perhaps because he isn’t comfortable with who he is—he’s terrified of losing Grace to somebody else, so he does everything he can to present himself as desirable, even if it means micromanaging his brother’s appearance.
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“You boosted a ring?” Lincoln asks. “Yeah,” Booth replies. “I thought about spending my inheritance on it but—take off that damn coat man, you make me nervous standing there looking like a spook, and that damn face paint, take it off.” Lincoln obeys, and as he undresses, he says that while riding the bus home in the costume he caught the attention of a little boy sitting next to him. Excited to see Abraham Lincoln, this rich little boy asked for his autograph, and Lincoln said he would give it to him for $10, but the boy only had $20, so Lincoln lied and told him that he would bring change the following day.
It becomes clear in this moment that both of these brothers are comfortable conning and deceiving people. However, the way they each go about deceiving people differs. While Booth straightforwardly steals, Lincoln’s theft is more intellectual, since he cunningly tricks the boy on the bus into parting with his money. As such, Lincoln emerges as the more savvy, intelligent brother, though both of them seem to lack a certain moral compass. 
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Lincoln sees the makeshift cardboard table and asks if Booth is making bookshelves. In response, Booth lies and says that’s exactly what he’s doing, saying, “I was thinking we dont got no bookshelves we dont got no dining room table so Im making a sorta modular unit you put the books in the bottom and the table on top. We can eat and store our books. We could put the photo album in there.” With this, he takes out a tattered old family album and puts it in one of the milk crates. He then tells his brother to stop calling him Booth, because he’s decided to change his name, though he isn’t ready to “reveal” the new one yet. Lincoln suggests that he pick “something african,” perhaps Shango, “the name of the thunder god.”
The brothers’ interesting relationship with history—both personal and otherwise—comes to the forefront in this moment. First of all, the photo album emerges as an important representation of a past about which the audience hasn’t yet learned, though whatever it contains is clearly significant to Booth and Lincoln, since it’s the only book (or book-like object) in the entire apartment. Second of all, Lincoln’s suggestion that Booth change his name to Shango suggests that he—Lincoln—is attuned to the effects of the painful history of slavery on a person’s identity. After all, many African-Americans have changed their names in the past in order to renounce the Anglicized names given to their ancestors by slave owners. What’s more, that Lincoln suggests Booth change his name to “Shango” hints at the nature of Booth’s personality, since Shango is typically known for his rage and fury. On another note, the fact that Booth lies to his brother about the Three-Card Monte table indicates that for some reason he doesn’t want Lincoln to know that he was practicing dealing cards.
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The brothers eat Chinese food, and Lincoln complains about having to sleep in the reclining chair. “Its my place,” Booth replies. “You don’t got a place. Cookie, she threw you out. And you cant seem to get another woman. Yr lucky I let you stay.” Lincoln then points out that Booth’s tone is different on Fridays, when Lincoln brings home his paycheck. While clearing the table, Lincoln sees a card on the ground, and Booth lies, saying he’s been practicing Solitaire. “How about we play a hand after eating,” he suggests to his brother, but Lincoln says, “You know I dont touch thuh cards, man.” Booth asks if he’d play if there was money on the line. “You dont got no money,” Lincoln replies. “All the money you got I bring in here.” In response, Booth points out that he has his inheritance money.
Once again, the audience witnesses Booth lying to his brother, though it’s not yet clear why he doesn’t want Lincoln to know he was practicing Three-Card Monte. However, one can intuit from Lincoln’s strong assertion that he doesn’t “touch thuh cards” that he perhaps has a certain distaste for gambling. Furthermore, Booth’s eagerness to bet money even when he doesn’t have a steady income reveals his foolhardy relationship with gambling and perhaps an overly confident attitude when it comes to his ability to beat his brother.
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When Booth mentions his inheritance, Lincoln says Booth might as well not have any money at all, since he never intends to spend it. “At least I still got mines,” Booth says. “You blew yrs.” After a short pause, the brothers change the subject and finish eating. Eventually, Booth turns his back to Lincoln and continues practicing Three-Card Monte in a hushed voice, but Lincoln hears him and critiques his technique. “You wanna hustle 3-card monte, you gotta do it right, you gotta break it down.” Booth urges his brother to show him what he means, but Lincoln refuses. Insisting, Booth says, “You and me could team up and do it together. We’d clean up, Link,” but Lincoln merely ignores him, turning the suggestion into a joke by saying, “I’ll clean up” as he throws away the Chinese food.
Once again, Lincoln’s aversion to Three-Card Monte comes to the forefront, and Booth’s insistence that they “team up” provides insight into the nature of their relationship: it’s clear their brotherly dynamic includes a power imbalance, since Booth is constantly begging his brother to play cards with him, as if he’s a young boy trying to get the attention of a brother he deeply admires. The more Lincoln refuses, it seems, the more Booth wants them to join forces.
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“My new names 3-Card,” Booth announces while Lincoln cleans. He declares that he’ll shoot anybody who refuses to call him 3-card, and though Lincoln finds this ridiculous, he indulges his little brother, saying, “Point made, 3-Card. Point made.” Shifting his attention, he starts playing guitar while Booth once more tries to convince him that they should team up and hustle Three-Card Monte on the streets. “We could clean up you and me,” he says. “You would throw the cards and I’d be yr Stickman. The one in the crowd who looks like just an innocent passerby, who looks like just another player, like just another customer, but who gots intimate connections with you, the Dealer, the one throwing the cards, the main man. I’d be the one who brings in the crowd.” 
Lincoln’s willingness to go along with Booth’s ludicrous name change suggests that he’s used to tolerating his younger brother’s irrational ideas. Of course, the condescending manner in which he says “Point made, 3-Card” only further reinforces his superiority in their relationship as the older, wiser, and more levelheaded brother. This dynamic only further makes Booth want to work with him, since it positions him as an elder capable of granting approval—something Booth desperately needs. There is, then, a sense of love and appreciation between them, even if this brotherly connection is strained by Booth’s absurd notions and Lincoln’s patronizing concessions.
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Lincoln tries to tell Booth that throwing cards isn’t as simple as he has made it sound, but Booth presses on, remarking, “And the ladies would be thrilling! You could afford to get laid! Grace would be all over me again.” Upon hearing this, Lincoln points out that Booth previously claimed she’s already in love with him, and Booth quickly corrects himself, saying, “She is she is. Im seeing her tomorrow […].” Quickly changing the topic back to Three-Card Monte, he begs Lincoln to go into business with him, but Lincoln remains steadfast, saying, “I dont touch thuh cards no more.” 
Finally, Parks reveals that Lincoln has a history of playing Three-Card Monte, as evidenced by both his insider knowledge (his understanding that throwing cards isn’t simple) and his statement that he doesn’t “touch thuh cards no more.” His absolute refusal to return to the world of hustling indicates that there’s something painful in his past surrounding his experience with Three-Card Monte, something that has stayed with him to this day, preventing him all the while from returning to his old ways. On another note, this short exchange also suggests that Booth is not being entirely truthful with his brother about his relationship with Grace—his statement about wanting Grace to be “all over him” again indicates that she’s not actually in love with him (as he claimed earlier), and this deception ultimately leaves the audience wondering why Booth feels the need to lie to his brother about his love life.
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After a long pause, Booth abruptly starts talking about the day their mother abandoned the family. While Lincoln was at school, Booth crept back home  because he “was feeling something going on, […] feeling something changing.” When he entered the house, he explains, he saw his mother packing her bags, and she told him to look after Lincoln even though he’s the older brother. “So who gonna look out for me,” Booth says now. “Here I am interested in an economic opportunity, willing to work hard, wiling to take risks and all you can say you shiteating motherfucking pathetic limpdick uncle tom, all you can tell me is how you dont do no more what I be wanting to do. Here I am trying to earn a living and you standing in my way. YOU STANDING IN MY WAY, LINK!”
The fact that Booth suddenly tells the story of coming upon his mother right before she abandoned the family highlights the extent to which he conflates past trials and tribulations with present-day difficulties. Indeed, faced with his brother’s reluctance to hustle Three-Card Monte with him, he can’t help but think back on one of the (presumably) most painful memories in his personal history, ultimately involving his brother in the complicated relationship he has with his past. When he blames Lincoln for “standing in [his] way,” he sounds like a petulant child, once again reinforcing the strange imbalance of power in their relationship.
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Apologizing, Lincoln reiterates that he doesn’t want to “hustle” anymore. “What you do all day aint no hustle?” Booth asks, referencing Lincoln’s job as an impersonator. Lincoln rejects this insinuation, saying, “People know the real deal. When people know the real deal it aint a hustle.” In response, Booth insists that this principle can also apply to Three-Card Monte. “We do the card game people will know the real deal,” he says. “Sometimes we will win sometimes they will win. They fast they win, we faster we win.” Still, Lincoln refuses, reiterating that he’ll never go back to that life. “You aint going back but you going all the way back,” Booth spits. “Back to way back then when folks was slaves and shit.”
Booth’s insistence that “people will know the real deal” even when they’re being hustled in Three-Card Monte gives rise to the idea that even a conman follows a standardized process—if somebody can track this process, then they aren’t necessarily being taken advantage of, though Booth’s reasoning falters here, since nobody who knows the “real deal” would agree to play Three-Card Monte with a hustler in the first place (the entire game is always rigged in the dealer’s favor). Booth also reveals his discomfort with Lincoln’s job as a historical impersonator in this moment, showing that he can’t even fathom dressing up in a way that harkens back to a time when “folks was slaves and shit.” Unlike his own personal history—which he finds painful but can apparently examine without harming himself—Booth is unable to even imagine himself into a racist past, blocking it out entirely rather than acknowledging that it happened.
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Frustrated by Booth’s harshness, Lincoln says, “Dont push me,” and Booth tells him he’s going to have to move out of the apartment. “I’ll be gone tomorrow,” Lincoln declares, and then the brothers sit on opposite sides of the apartment. From his reclining chair, Lincoln plays his guitar and sings a song about how his parents left him, how he has no money, no lover, no place to stay. Impressed by his lyrical ability, Booth asks if he made the song up on the spot, and Lincoln says he’s had it knocking around his head for a couple days. “Sounds good,” Booth admits. After thanking his brother for the compliment, Lincoln tells him why their father gave them their names; “It was his idea of a joke,” he says.
A tenderness between Lincoln and Booth emerges in this moment. Even though they’ve just had an argument, they quickly recover, complimenting one another and—more importantly—talking about their shared past. When Lincoln tells his brother how their father chose their names, he reminds Booth of their shared lineage, a bond that holds them together despite their differences. As such, their brotherly relationship exposes its own complexities: its balance between tension and mutual appreciation.
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