Review: Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks 

Robert Faivre


Race, as it is constructed in much of contemporary cultural theory, and, for that matter, in much of liberal public discourse, is a matter of "difference", "identity", and "lifestyle". Contrary to the view that "race" marks a position in the relations of oppression, most liberal and even leftist discussions of race (following the example of the right wing ideologues) have abandoned the binary of "victim" and "oppressor" as too "reductive" a conceptual model for understanding the reality of race; that is, the victim/oppressor binary is seen as not allowing for the multiplicity of positions within "race" relations. For instance, "black" is seen as too general a category to account for the many ways of being black and the many kinds of people of African descent. Further, the binary opposition of victim/oppressor is seen as an over-simplification of the diversity of positions it is possible to occupy within the relations of power both between and within perceived racial groups. In this view, what is important is not to deny the autonomy of people of color; indeed the personal and cultural creativity of such persons and peoples would seem to speak to the fact that no degree of domination, or oppression, is ever complete, and thus that both individuality and multiplicity, or difference, greatly complicate conventional notions of "race". Yet despite its own self-representations, this is in fact a conservative view of race, or a post-race theory of race, which sees society as an indefinable series of countless individuals who cannot be determinately placed in any social collectivity but who form groups only when this suits them. Thus when relations of racial oppression are acknowledged in this perspective, it is only in terms of individuals, either as a matter of the personal experience of suffering (which does not grasp, however, the causes of this experience), or in terms of shifting and fluid participation in a global game of domination repeated at all levels of human experience.

An exemplary enactment of this post-race logic is Suzan-Lori Parks' recent play Topdog/Underdog (Theatre Communications Group, 2001). Parks was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play, which had a successful run off-Broadway in 2001 and an extended run on Broadway in 2002, garnering nominations and awards along the way. The play, which represents contemporary reality as a dog-eat-dog world, dramatizes race (specifically, in terms of the lives of two young African-American brothers) as a contradiction between dreams of a possible life and the reality in which the chance of their realization is the ultimate gamble. In fact, the play is as popular as it is within the ruling class culture industry because of the view of race it forwards at a time when the intense contradictions of race in the U.S. are reaching explosive dimensions (such as, to give but one example, the disproportionately high percentage of African-American youth criminalized and incarcerated, and made into cheap exploitable labor in prisons). At a time when the systemic connection of the history of racial oppression to the class divisions in capitalism is becoming ever more evident, the play offers the view of a post-race society in which the logic of the systemic is displaced by the logic of the individual and hence the system is let off the hook.

Topdog/Underdog puts two grown brothers in a tiny boarding-house room to work through their past, present, and possible futures. The room is rented by the younger of the two, Booth, a petty thief and wannabe three-card monte street hustler; the rent is paid by the elder brother, Lincoln, an arcade performer and former card hustler who has sworn off the cards. The main conflict of the first half of the play revolves around Booth's attempt to convince Lincoln to give up his arcade job and return to the hustle. Booth dreams that they can be partners, thus gaining street status and leading exciting and pleasurable lives. The problem is that Lincoln, who gave up hustling when his street partner was murdered, no longer seems to see that life as a desirable one. Recently kicked out by his now ex-wife Cookie, Lincoln seems content to come home from work, eat and drink, reminisce about childhood, and rest up for another day's labor. Booth, who is pursuing a relationship with a young woman named Grace, is not at all content with this arrangement. His dreams are riding on getting Lincoln back in the game. The second half of the play and the formal "resolution" of the play's conflict, however, bring the deferral of Booth's dreams. Stood up by Grace and hustled by Lincoln, Booth reacts with violence, killing them in a homicidal rage.

The use of "Lincoln" and "Booth" as a formal device provides a means of rewriting history in terms of an ironic textuality and a parodic reversal. This becomes a site of "laughter" in which Parks' ironic use of the names works to undermine the social history of the US and slavery. This "irony" is compounded by the fact that Lincoln's arcade job is that of an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, "assassinated" daily by paying customers. This figure of the black man playing the Great Emancipator, which is recycled from Parks' earlier (and more experimental) The America Play, is an ironic refiguring of Lincoln, a symbol of history as a storehouse of social imagery. As the figures of the white emancipator and white assassin can be made black, these become roles which any individual can take up in his or her own self-liberation or self-destruction. Yet, what this shows is that such image-play is not merely a formal subversion of the narrative codes of history, but rather that it encodes a deeper logic. That is, beneath the play of names and the reversal of black and white, Topdog/Underdog plays on the logic of chance and inevitability. On the one hand, the characters' narrative "fate" is preordained by their names; on the other hand, they have a "choice"—a "chance"—to rewrite the historical narrative of Booth killing Lincoln. Thus, that the black Booth kills the black Lincoln in the end is explained through the logic that blacks have no one to blame but themselves for black on black violence; it is a matter of "individual" responsibility.

This logic of post-race is exemplified further by a reminiscence of their childhood. Lincoln and Booth recall their father railing against "the White Man" one day when all the tires on his car went flat. They laugh because they were the ones who put the nails under his tires. Such a moment represents their father's claims of being a victim of racist oppression as a comical misunderstanding of the actual situation. By deploying the "funny" moment, Parks undermines the logic of the systemic operation of racism not only by rendering the recognition of it as an effect of cultural "paranoia" rather than of history, but by making a site of social tension into a site of laughter and thus diluting the social tensions.

Such moves are repeated throughout the play, which has as its fundamental logic the reduction of the systemic to the "interpersonal" by means of irony, humor, and parodic spectacle. Thus, rather than forwarding an understanding of racism in terms of systemic oppression, the play makes light of such a notion and represents society as a dog-eat-dog world of endless hustles in which one is either a "topdog" or an "underdog". Booth is a perennial underdog whose current means of approximating topdog status is shoplifting, and when his chances at improved status fail, he resorts to violence against the offending individuals. The logic of topdog/underdog, or the hustle (in which one is either the player or the played), represents social relations as interpersonal relations of domination. In this neo-liberal view all people are ultimately individuals who do what they can in their own best interest, cooperating with others if necessary, but seeking always to come out ahead. Self-interest is an individual matter, with no abiding shared interest, not even that of family in the end. In this sense, the topdog/underdog relation of the two brothers stands as an exemplar of all social relations between individuals in society.

In arguing against portraying blacks as victims of oppression, Parks posits that to use such terms is to "focus on the victimizer [...] But when you show yourself as a person, you focus on your humanity and your possibility, and the possibilities of the world you live in" ("Pulitzer Winner for Drama", Newshour with Jim Lehrer, 4/11/2002). The alternative, then, of showing Booth and Lincoln as victims of oppression, for instance, is to show them as individual "persons". When their father named them "Lincoln" and "Booth" as a joke, she notes, this "sort of sets a certain life into motion, but they have choice—each moment of their lives they can exercise this choice" ("Pulitzer Winner for Drama"). To be a "person" or "individual" rather than a "victim", then, is to have "choice", or an unending array of opportunities for "choice", and not to have one's choices systematically predetermined. Thus, purportedly, rather than reducing people to mere subjects of forces beyond their control, Parks aims to show people as they "really are" and life as it "really is" in all its possibility. To represent life in the dramatic "mirror of reality" as "oppressive", according to Parks, is to reduce the experience of social reality to pain or to meaning, and to leave out the pleasure. "But it's not just painful or meaningful," Parks states. "People reduce it [...] It's not all about pain—by saying it's all about pain we deny ourselves the pleasure. By saying it's all about a certain group pushing down another certain group, we deny ourselves an existence that occurs without the presence of any other group" ("Funnyhouse of a Negro", The Village Voice, 11/3/1999). In other words, to discuss "race" in terms of racism denies the autonomy and wholeness of the oppressed, notably their right to singular and freely chosen pleasures.

While Topdog/Underdog denies neither the pain and sadness of contemporary society for so many people, nor its daily pleasures (such as enjoying a meal, a drink, jokes, the company of others, sex, etc.), it represents these experiences as self-evident. That is, through the play Parks seeks to show that the pleasures of contemporary life—even those of the lives of persons living at the margins of "productive" society—counterbalance and even counteract the pain. To say otherwise, in Parks' view, is to "reduce" people's lives to pain or to a meaning that is only a partial representation of the "reality" of their experience. But this resistance to conceptual "reduction" or abstraction is itself a reduction of the systematic nature of race and racism which casts it as a matter of "experience", and for Parks "experience" is not in need of explanation but is self-evident. Experience, including the experience of watching a play, needs only to be felt and not "compartmentalized" ("This Time the Shock is Her Turn toward Naturalism", New York Times, 7/22/2001).

Predictably, while this view of race claims to preserve the "autonomy" and "agency" of the oppressed, what it in actuality puts forth as the site of freedom is the freely choosing consumer. This serves to sever "race" from racism by making race a cultural and experiential issue and not a matter of the systemic workings of the broader social relations. Thus, rather than staging a critical unpacking of moments of consumption as temporary relief from oppression which works to alleviate the pressure of the contradictions of systemic marginalization of the majority of people of color and thus serves an ideological role in capitalism, the play enacts an uncritical celebration of small pleasures, thus reducing racist oppression to a transhistorical suffering felt by all "individuals" which can be overcome through their consuming practices.

The intraracial and indeed intrafamilial violence which explodes when the possibility of a higher "level" or style of consumption is denied to Booth is represented not as a matter of the economic violence of systemic oppression within which the majority of subjects of color are located and which produces different consumption "levels" to begin with; rather it is seen as interpersonal violence. That is, Booth's turn to violence appears not as an act to be explained but as a spectacle to be witnessed; it erupts in an overdetermined moment in which the pain of all the various losses which he has accumulated as an underdog inevitably pushes him beyond his psychic breaking point. However, such violence as Booth enacts is inevitable neither because of identity (that is, the semio-logic of "names") nor out of a series of free and autonomous bad "choices". Rather, an effective and emancipatory theory of race needs to understand such situations within the terms of the broader contradictions of being oppressed and exploited (and thus having fewer options available, worse living conditions, less education, undeveloped potential, etc.). In short, to understand race in terms of racist oppression is to understand race in terms of the system of exploitation which puts producing profit over meeting needs of people, and thus which develops their potential only inasmuch as it meets the needs of capital; difference under capitalism is, as Peter Alexander shows, always an effect of its imperatives of profit (Racism, Resistance and Revolution, London, Chicago, Melbourne: Bookmarks, 1997).

It is not the theory of race as systemic which "reduces" people in the abstract that is violent; it is rather the system of capital which reduces the life possibilities of the majority of the world's people and thus in fact drastically shapes their choices that is the real violence. What the play's view of race obscures from understanding is that the racially differentiated relations of oppression are determined by and work in the functional effectivity of the relations of exploitation, that is, in the relations of class. Rather than submitting to a dog-eat-dog world of competing individual interests and actions, the world's oppressed and exploited people need to be able to see that they have a shared interest in working together to transform the relations of exploitation which throw them into competition in the interests of capital.

THE RED CRITIQUE 5  (July/August 2002)