Topdog/Underdog

by

Suzan-Lori Parks

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Topdog/Underdog: Scene Six Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The following night, Lincoln barrels into the apartment, drunk and in high spirits. Pulling a wad of money from his pocket, he counts the bills and talks to himself, saying, “You didnt go back, Link, you got back, you got it back you got yr shit back in thuh saddle, man, you got back in the business.” He takes pleasure in rehashing his evening, which he spent in the local bar buying drinks for everybody after a successful day of hustling people in Three-Card Monte. “And thuh women be hanging on me and purring,” he says, recalling the night’s escapade with three women in the bathroom of the bar—“3 of them sweethearts in thuh restroom on my dick all at once and I was there my shit was there. And Cookie just went out of my mind which is cool which is very cool.”
As Lincoln brags to himself about his earnings and his success in returning to the streets as a hustler, the audience recognizes the same kind of cocky bravado Booth displays throughout the play. However, there’s a difference between the brothers’ arrogance. While Lincoln allows his pride to swell in private, Booth’s pride is strictly performative. In other words, he’s boasts because he wants to convince other people of his greatness. In turn, he himself might actually believe he’s worthy of praise. Lincoln, on the other hand, simply brags in this moment for the sake of enjoying the moment. Furthermore, it’s also worth noting that Lincoln conflates success with sexual prowess, believing that his sexual adventures with the three women in the bathroom is a measure of his accomplishments.
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As Lincoln brags to himself, Booth silently emerges from behind the partition between the bed and the reclining chair (he has apparently been sitting in the dark the entire time). Upon seeing him, Lincoln asks his brother how his night has been, and Booth says, “Grace got down on her knees. Down on her knees, man. Asked me tuh marry her.” As such, he continues, he’s going to have to ask Lincoln to move out of the apartment so that Grace can move in. “No sweat man,” Lincoln says. “I can leave right now.” 
The audience senses in this moment that things are perhaps not going as well for Booth as he claims, considering that he’s been sitting in the dark all by himself and has just overheard his brother’s boasts about having had a successful day playing Three-Card Monte. It’s no surprise, then, that he would make up that Grace “got down on her knees” before him, an image that exalts his importance and makes him look like the dominant one in their relationship; he is, in other words, once again compensating for his fragile ego and competing with his brother’s success.
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As Lincoln finds a suitcase and begins packing, Booth says, “Just like that, huh? ‘No sweat’?! Yesterday you lost yr damn job.” In response, Lincoln says he doesn’t need to worry because he found a new job as a security guard. “Security guard. Howaboutthat,” Booth says. When Lincoln asks his brother what he’s going to do for work now that he’s getting married, Booth merely says, “I got plans.” Skeptical, Lincoln pushes on, saying, “Shes a smart chick. And she cares about you. But she aint gonna let you treat her like some pack mule while shes out working her ass off and yr laying up in here scheming and dreaming to cover up thuh fact that you dont got no skills.”
Booth is offended that Lincoln doesn’t care about getting kicked out of the apartment. After all, Booth seems to have fabricated the fact that Lincoln needs to leave in the first place, a lie told for the purpose of insulting his brother. As such, Lincoln’s easygoing response is a further blow to Booth’s ego, ultimately sending the message that there’s nothing he can do to faze his older brother. To make things worse, Lincoln reminds Booth that he doesn’t have any “skills,” further exacerbating Booth’s feelings of inferiority when it comes to their brotherly competitiveness.
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After asserting that Grace is “cool” with who he is, Booth watches Lincoln pack and wonders aloud why their father didn’t take his clothes with him when he left all those years ago. He then mentions that their mother was having an affair before she left. Lincoln isn’t surprised to hear this and adds that their father also saw other women. “Sometimes he’d let me meet the ladies,” he says. And sometimes, he says, their father would let him watch him have sex with these women. “He made it seem like it was this big deal this great thing he was letting me witness but it wasnt like nothing,” he says. “One of his ladies liked me, so I would do her after he’d be laying there, spent and sleeping and snoring and her and me would be sneaking it.” 
Yet again, the tension between Lincoln and Booth segues into another topic entirely, eventually dissipating as the brothers inevitably relate to one another despite their differences. In this case, they focus on their shared personal histories, analyzing their parents’ respective departures and sharing information with one another about the situation. In doing so, they each gain a new perspective on their own past. This is perhaps the only way history can be truly altered—though elsewhere Parks suggests that the past must be acknowledged and accepted (even when it’s painful), in this moment she shows that the one mutable element of history is the lens through which a person remembers it. In this moment, the brothers stop narrowly reviewing their pasts, ultimately opening themselves up to one another and allowing their memories to merge, thereby enhancing and altering their conception of their own family history.
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As Lincoln packs his Abraham Lincoln costume, Booth admits he’s going to miss seeing his brother come home in the “getup.” “I don’t even got a picture of you in it for the album,” he says, so Lincoln puts it on and Booth takes a photograph of him. Booth asks him what he used to do to pass the time at the arcade, and Lincoln says he’d just sit there. “And think about women,” Booth guesses. “Sometimes,” says Lincoln. “Cookie,” Booth says. “Sometimes,” Lincoln replies again. “And how she came over here one night looking for you,” Booth continues. Lincoln goes along with the memory, as Booth says, “All she knew was you couldnt get it up. You couldnt get it up with her so in her head you was tired of her and had gone out to screw somebody new and this time maybe werent never coming back.”
Unfortunately, the tender moment Lincoln and Booth share whilst sharing memories of their parents quickly turns sour when Booth starts encouraging Lincoln to examine in vivid detail the decline of his marriage. Indeed, Booth seems to have strung Lincoln down an ominous and hurtful path when he says, “And how she came over here one night looking for you.” He then launches into yet another attempt to emasculate his older brother, reminding Lincoln that he “couldnt get it up” with Cookie. Once again, then, Booth can’t help but compete with his brother, even after they’ve just shared a nice moment.
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Related Quotes
Booth continues to narrate the night Cookie came to the apartment, revealing that she wanted to get back at Lincoln by sleeping with another man, and when Booth encouraged her to do so, she made it clear that she wanted to sleep with him. “She said she wanted to have her fun right here. With me,” he says. “And then, just like that, she changed her mind.” After a pause, he adds, “But she’d hooked me. That bad part of me that I fight down everyday. You beat yrs down and it stays there dead but mine keeps coming up for another round. And the bad part of me took her clothing off and carried her into thuh bed and had her, Link, yr Cookie. It wasnt just thuh bad part of me it was all of me, man, I had her. Yr damn wife. Right in that bed.”
Booth is blatantly combative in this moment. Although his words may at first appear confessional because he says it was “the bad part” of him that slept with Lincoln’s wife, his message is ultimately intended to provoke his older brother. Indeed, he challenges any goodwill Lincoln might still feel toward him when he says, “It wasnt just thuh bad part of me it was all of me, man, I had her.” By saying this, he leaves little opportunity for Lincoln to practice forgiveness. Instead, he frames himself as a man driven by a need for “sexual release” who also has no problem wronging his brother, since it’s not just “the bad part” of him that made the decision to sleep with Cookie, it was “all” of him, meaning that even his rational mind—his conscience—permitted him to go behind his brother’s back. And as if this sentiment isn’t already vicious enough, he rubs Lincoln’s face in the truth by adding, “Yr damn wife. Right in that bed.”
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Lincoln tells Booth he doesn’t think about Cookie anymore. Booth then criticizes him, suggesting that Lincoln pales in comparison to the man he used to be, a successful and desirable person. In response, Lincoln tells him that he’s out of his mind. “Least Im still me!” Booth insists, to which Lincoln says, “Least I work.” Booth then claims he has plans, and Lincoln admonishes him for thinking he’ll be able to find success as a Three-Card Monte dealer. “You a double left-handed motherfucker who dont stand a chance in all get out out there throwing no cards,” he says. “You scared,” Booth replies. “You scared you gonna throw and Ima kick yr ass,” he taunts. He then determines to set up the Monte table, daring Lincoln to play a round.
Finally, the competition between Lincoln and Booth comes fully to the forefront of their relationship, as Lincoln gives in and starts hurling insults back at his brother by calling him a “double left-handed motherfucker.” Of course, his words do nothing but egg his little brother on, and because Booth doesn’t want to be seen as inferior, he escalates the situation by accusing Lincoln of being afraid to play cards against him. By framing the situation like this, he makes himself look like the alpha-male, the one who holds the power. In reality, the audience understands that Lincoln has the upper hand in this relationship, but Booth is eager to prove otherwise, yelling, “Ima kick yr ass,” an unsubstantiated but nevertheless provocative claim.
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“I’m gone,” Lincoln says, heading for the door. Suddenly, his brother screams “Fuck that!”, startling Lincoln into staying. “Damn,” he says. “I didnt know it went so deep for you lil bro. Set up the cards.” Booth scrambles to set up the Monte table, and Lincoln sits down and starts throwing the cards. On the first round, Booth chooses the correct card and starts bragging while Lincoln turns over the other cards, staring at them as if perplexed. “Who thuh man, Link?!” Booth yells. “I got yr shit down.” Lincoln accepts this, merely saying, “Right.” At this point, Booth reveals that he knows Lincoln was out playing Three-Card Monte that day on the streets. Lincoln insists he was going to tell him anyway, then admits that his brother’s getting pretty good.
It’s worth noting here that, although Booth’s ability to identify the correct card in Three-Card Monte is perhaps a bit surprising given his lack of experience, he seems to be forgetting one of the key lessons Lincoln taught him about playing cards: the dealer always acts as if he doesn’t want to play. In step with this, Booth literally has to scream “Fuck that!” at Lincoln in order to convince him to throw the cards. As such, though Booth seems to be in a position of power over Lincoln, it may indeed be the other way around.
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After receiving Lincoln’s compliment, Booth tells him to throw the cards “for real.” Lincoln upholds that he already was throwing them “for real,” but Booth says it didn’t feel authentic. “We’re missing the essential elements,” Lincoln suggests. “The crowd, the street, thuh traffic sounds, all that.” Booth then mentions the final element they’re missing: the money. Knowing Lincoln won $500 that day, he urges his older brother to put it on the table. Hesitant, Lincoln surrenders it to the bet and starts dealing, but Booth stops him, accusing him of holding back by moving too slowly. In protest, Lincoln says he was only getting started, but Booth holds to his claim, saying, “You was gonna do thuh pussy shit, not thuh real shit.”
By this point, Lincoln has Booth raring to play Three-Card Monte while he himself retains a certain skeptical reluctance, acting as if he’s unsure about actually playing the game with his brother, whom he makes out to be unprecedentedly talented at besting the dealer. Because Lincoln has already explained that the dealer never acts like he wants to play, the audience begins to grasp that he’s most likely conning Booth by imbuing in him an unfounded sense of confidence. Quite significantly, Lincoln never mentions money—he points out that they are “missing the essential elements” that make Three-Card Monte feel “real,” but he only lists external factors like traffic sounds, allowing Booth to be the one to bring up the fact that they haven’t put any money on the line. This technique draws Booth even further into the idea that he’s the one calling the shots, ultimately giving him the notion that he has more power than he actually does.
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Lincoln refutes Booth’s claim that he’s holding back, since he bet money and “money makes it real.” “But not if I dont put no money down tuh match it,” Booth says. Lincoln reminds him that he doesn’t have any money, but Booth corrects him, saying he has his inheritance, which he fetches from a hiding place. Holding the nylon stocking containing the cash, he launches into a memory about how he used to catch his mother and her lover when he cut school—he’d walk home and listen to them talking, and one day he came into the kitchen and saw them having sex. Then, on the day she left, he came home and found her alone as she packed clothes into plastic bags, at which point she gave him his $500 inheritance. Finishing his story, he places the nylon stocking on the table and says, “Now its real.”
The more involved Booth becomes in playing Three-Card Monte, the clearer it is that Lincoln is manipulating him. At every turn, he manages to manufacture the game so that it’s Booth making the official decision; it’s Booth’s idea to play in the first place, it’s Booth’s idea that Lincoln should put money down, and—finally—it’s Booth’s idea that he should bet his own inheritance. In this way, Parks demonstrates that an act of deception works best when a mark can be convinced into conning himself. Blinded by confidence, Booth thinks he’s acting independently when in reality he’s falling perfectly into the scheme Lincoln has laid out to dupe him.
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Looking at Booth’s inheritance, Lincoln says, “Dont put that down,” but Booth urges him to throw the cards. “I dont want to play,” Lincoln says. “Throw thuh fucking cards, man!!” Booth screams. After a pause, Lincoln begins. On the first round, Booth chooses the correct card and celebrates with a loud laugh. “One good pickll get you in 2 good picks and you gone win,” Lincoln says. “I know man I know,” Booth says, and the brothers play another round. After his long card-throwing spiel, Lincoln pauses, and Booth reiterates the terms of the deal, saying, “I pick right I got yr shit.” He also adds that if he wins, he will “beat [Lincoln] for real.” In response, Lincoln asks, “You think we’re really brothers?”
When Lincoln says, “I dont want to play,” he practically makes a direct reference to the lessons he gave Booth earlier in the play, when he said, “Thats thuh Dealers attitude. He acts like he dont wanna play.” Despite how strictly Lincoln adheres to this principle, Booth still fails to recognize that he’s being played. This is because he’s obsessed with beating Lincoln “for real,” a notion that aligns with the fact that Booth has been waging a competition against his brother for the entire play. Now, it seems, he’s anxious to finally act out this competition so that he can prove his own worthiness as an opponent by besting his brother. Lincoln, for his part, picks up on this dynamic and pauses to consider the messy nature of their relationship, asking, “You think we’re really brothers?” He asks this partly because Booth’s eagerness to overtake him is so blatantly malicious, but also partly because he recognizes his own twisted desire to cheat his little brother.
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Booth tells Lincoln he thinks they are, indeed, brothers, and after a very long pause, Lincoln urges him to choose the card. Booth points to one, and when Lincoln flips it over, it turns out that he chose incorrectly. “I guess all this is mines,” Lincoln says, raking the money toward himself across the table. “Aint yr fault if yr eyes aint fast,” he says. “And you cant help it if you got 2 left hands, right? Throwing cards aint thuh whole world. You got other shit going for you. You got Grace.” Booth is sullen, but Lincoln ignores him, chuckling to himself and telling his brother that he isn’t laughing at him, but “just laughing” in general. He sits in his reclining chair and goes about trying to open the nylon stocking, which is tightly knotted. As he does so, Booth watches and broods. 
When Lincoln finally beats Booth, he condescendingly reminds his little brother that “Throwing cards aint thuh whole world.” This is an interesting statement because it functions on two levels. In one sense, this is a patronizing remark because it makes light of a situation in which Booth has lost not only all the money he owns, but the only thing left of his mother. In another sense, though, Lincoln’s suggestion that Booth focus on something other than Three-Card Monte carries with it a certain protective attitude. By forcing his brother to admit he’s bad at playing cards, Lincoln discourages Booth from entering the life of a hustler, thereby keeping him away from a lifestyle he Lincoln knows to be dangerous. In this way, Lincoln’s deception of Booth can be understood as both malicious and beneficent, an action that arises as much from love and brotherly care as it does from greed.
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“Woah,” Lincoln says, struggling with the nylon stocking, “she sure did tie this up tight, didnt she?” Booth agrees that their mother did tie a tight knot and admits that he’s never opened it. “Yr kidding,” Lincoln says. “500 and you aint never opened it?” Booth says he’s been saving it, but Lincoln remains flabbergasted by the fact that his brother never even opened the stocking to make sure their mother actually gave him the $500 she claimed to. As he tries to untie it, Booth begs him not to open the stocking. “We know whats in it,” he says. “Dont open it.” Lincoln pays no heed to his brother’s protests, contemplating cutting the stocking but deciding not to because it would “spoil the whole effect.”
The fact that Booth has never opened the nylon stocking his mother gave him suggests that he puts his faith in family members even when they might not deserve it. Indeed, he knows his mother was unfaithful to his father and to the family as a whole, and yet he’s never questioned whether or not she told him the truth about his inheritance. Likewise, he competes with Lincoln but never actually stops to think that Lincoln might con him out of his money. This is ironic, since he himself has wronged his brother by sleeping with Cookie, and yet he seems to believe that family members never do anything bad to each other. In this way, Parks portrays Booth as ignorant, a man too wrapped up in his own deceptions of his loved ones to realize that he too can be the target of similar deceptions.
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Once again, Lincoln express how baffled he is that Booth never once opened the stocking to count the money. “She coulda been jiving you, bro,” he says. “Jiving you big time. Its like thuh cards. And ooooh you certainly was persistent. But you was in such a hurry to learn thuh last move that you didnt bother learning thuh first one. That was yr mistake. Cause its thuh first move that separates thuh Player from thuh Played. And thuh first move is to know that there aint no winning. Taadaaa! It may look like you got a chance, but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you.” Having said this, Lincoln finally reveals that he conned his little brother out of his inheritance. “Fuck you,” Booth yells. “Fuck you FUCK YOU FUCK YOU!!” Lincoln merely shrugs this reaction off and resolves to cut the stocking. 
Any doubts the audience may have had about Lincoln’s motives are put to rest in this scene when he explains to Booth that nobody can ever truly win against the dealer in Three-Card Monte. By convincing Booth that he had the ability to “pick right,” Lincoln manipulated his little brother into believing that he was in control when, in truth, Lincoln was leading him along the entire time. As such, Booth is encouraged to act as the agent of his own deception.
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Right as Lincoln is about to cut the stocking, Booth says, “I popped her.” Lincoln pauses in confusion, and Booth goes on. “Grace,” he says. “I popped her. Grace. […] Who thuh fuck she think she is doing me like she done? Telling me I dont got nothing going on.” Upon hearing this, Lincoln tells Booth he’s going to give him back the inheritance money, but Booth isn’t listening. Instead, he tells Lincoln that he’s tired of him calling him his little brother, tired of being called Booth. “That Booth shit is over,” he says. “3-Cards thuh man now.” Again, Lincoln tries to give back the stocking, but Booth forges onward, saying, “Who thuh man now, huh? Who thuh man now?! Think you can fuck with me, motherfucker think again motherfucker think again! Think you can take me like Im just some chump some two lefthanded pussy dickbreath chump […].”
Although Booth has lost to his brother, he tries to assert himself as the dominant man in their relationship. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, he shouts, “Who thuh man now?”, as if Lincoln has underestimated him—and indeed he has, at least regarding Booth’s violent predilections. In this moment, then, Booth forces his way into a position of power, playing upon his violent temperament in order to dominate Lincoln. Of course, this is yet another overcompensation for the fact that he’s not, in fact, worthy of such power, and his attempt to intimidate his brother only further exposes his petulant nature and deep insecurity.
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Lincoln tries to convince his brother to take back the stocking. Booth refuses, suddenly insisting that Lincoln cut it open—“OPEN IT!!!”, he screams. Watching his younger brother, Lincoln brings the knife to the stocking. Just as the blade touches it, though, Booth runs behind the reclining chair and takes Lincoln in a headlock, pressing the pistol to his neck. “Dont,” Lincoln pleads, but Booth pulls the trigger, sending Lincoln toppling to the floor. Pacing across the apartment, Booth talks aloud to himself, saying, “Think you can take my shit? […] Ima go out there and make a name for myself that dont have nothing to do with you. And 3-Cards gonna be in everybodys head and in everybodys mouth like Link was.” Stooping to pick up the money, he collapses on the floor. Sitting over Lincoln, he hugs his brother’s corpse and issues a sorrowful scream.
That Booth continues to talk himself up even after killing Lincoln demonstrates once again his desire to emerge victorious in their brotherly competition. It’s clear in this moment that he’s constantly measuring himself up to Lincoln, a dynamic he clearly detests, as evidenced by his assertion that he’s going to make a name for himself that has “nothing to do with” his brother. Of course, this bombastic monologue does nothing to actually give Booth a sense of power, and he seems to realize this when he suddenly collapses over his brother’s body, wailing out because he realizes that, though he has killed his main competitor, he has also killed the only person with whom he had a close relationship. In this way, Parks shows that Booth’s obsession with being an alpha-male and besting his brother is a futile preoccupation that only leads to sorrow and hardship.
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