FCP Explores Learned Helplessness with “Topdog/Underdog”

Reviewed by Stephen Visser

Flint Community Players opened the second installment of their signature Ghost Light Series on Friday night. The program defines this series as being “intended for mature audiences and aimed at adults who enjoy exploring the human condition”. If this is their mission, then I think this group would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate script because Suzan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog fits that bill quite nicely. The script is powerful, authentic, and extremely relevant to our community.

The story follows two African-American brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who are struggling to make ends meet. Lincoln, a former three-card monte hustler, is attempting to stay on the straight and narrow after seeing a friend killed when a hustle turned sideways. He decides to get a respectable job, which entails dressing up like Abraham Lincoln (in whiteface) and letting people reenact Lincoln’s assassination. If Lincoln is the brother of reason in this family, then Booth is certainly the brother of spontaneity. Less talented as a card shark, Booth finds himself earning a living through the art of shoplifting. Despite Lincoln’s warnings and personal experiences with the hustle, Booth is determined to become a seasoned three-card monte hustler. Through her characterization of these two brothers, Parks is able to comment on the existence of learned helplessness and to argue that we are products of our own environment to some extent.

Parks’ authority on this subject is undeniable as well as impressive. It’s not surprising that she was honored with a Pulitzer prize for this piece. Her starkly authentic characters evidence this. Equally impressive is the incredible twosome that Artistic Director Dennis J. Sykes has assembled to carry out this arduous task. Darius Smith (Lincoln) and Kenyatta DeEtt (Booth) have incredible chemistry. These gentlemen showed us their most personal vulnerabilities. When two actors are charged with telling a story that is so important, so relevant to our times, it can be difficult to get it exactly right. These two men did this flawlessly. They were able to give context to the struggle that modern day African American men face. They argued that the struggle to overcome our environments can sometimes be impossible because of learned helplessness. They left us questioning what we can do as a community to intervene in this tragic cycle.

Sykes adopted a hybrid-style format for this particular production. This had to do with one of the actors being offered a new opportunity in their professional life, which then affected their ability to go forward with the production in its originally intended format of a fully staged production. The final product was characterized by elements of reader’s theatre, and elements of a fully staged production. Because Sykes didn’t commit to either format too completely, the production came with its own sets of problems. The players had pretty extensive blocking which slowed down the action when actors were too physical and lost their place during the reading. This seemed to be an issue throughout, but was well navigated by the players.

All in all, this was a very beautiful production that holds weight, relevance, and importance in our community. The entire cast and crew should be commended for their efforts to push forward with sharing this story with our community despite any obstacles that might have arisen. Topdog/Underdog continues at Flint Community Players Tom and Bea Nobles Performance Hall through this weekend only – February 11 at 7:30 pm and February 12 at 2:30 pm. For tickets contact the box office at 810-441-9302 or online at www.flintcommunityplayers.com


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