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THEATER REVIEW: ion does justice to Pulitzer Prize winner “Topdog/Underdog”

The incongruousness of a black man dressed in the familiar black suit and stovepipe hat of Abraham Lincoln opens Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” playing through May 5 at ion theatre in Hillcrest.

Tautly directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and brilliantly acted by Mark Christopher Lawrence and Laurence Brown, this Pulitzer Prize-winning portrait of urban deprivation and faded hope is about filial love and macho one-upmanship between brothers Lincoln (Mark Christopher Lawrence) and Booth (Laurence Brown), victims of their father’s mischievous sense of humor and the long-ago desertion of both parents.

The elder “topdog” Lincoln is a smooth talker who spent several years successfully hustling three-card monte – until one night his partner was killed. Now he dons a costume, slaps on whiteface and plays Lincoln in a cheesy arcade, where for a few dollars strangers can come and “shoot” the 16th president.

Lincoln has made his peace with the world as he has found it and is content with his “sit-down job with benefits;” it is his check that pays the rent. His only fear is losing the job.

The younger Booth, a petty thief, harbors grandiose notions of succeeding his brother at the hustle – or partnering with him and making pots of money. We find him practicing diligently, but so far Booth lacks the moves, the patter and the hands. But he longs to make it big so he can settle down with unseen girlfriend Grace, “so sweet she make my teeth hurt.”

The play is a pas de deux of power politics, as the brothers jockey for superiority in cards and women.

Lawrence and Brown have worked together before (in “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences”); their relationship shows both the working ease and the filial tension that many brothers develop. They reflect the before-and-after of learning to live in a society which does not value them: Booth is brash, hopeful and still thinks he can make it big, while Lawrence has reached a sad but more realistic stage of resignation.

Technical elements are not slighted. Brian Redfern’s realistic set design of a seedy room with traces of graffiti, Nicholas Drashner’s gangsta rap sound design, Jason Bieber’s lighting and Jeannie Galioto’s costumes add to the atmosphere.

This is theater for the adventurous, a sad story that will end as it must, but so expertly directed and acted that it leaves an ache that may stay with you for days.

The details

“Topdog/Underdog” runs through May 20 at ion’s BLKBOX @ 6th & Penn, 3704 Sixth Avenue in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; matinee Saturday at 4 pm; matinee on Sunday, May 20, at 2 pm.

For tickets call 619-600-5020 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.