Michael Curry (Booth) and Dorian Lockett (Lincoln) in Topdog/Underdog produced by Ubuntu Theater Project. Photo: Simone Finney

The Ubuntu Theater Project is currently performing the dramatic and visceral 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Topdog/Underdog by MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Suzan-Lori Parks. This two-person, two-act play examines the lives of two African-American brothers, Lincoln, in his late 30s, (Dorian Lockett, 13 Reasons Why, The Walking Dead) and Booth (Michael Curry, black odyssey, Dance of the Holy Ghosts), who is five years younger, as they try to overcome their obstacles of poverty and unemployment, gambling, women problems, and their challenging family circumstances. In an ominous foreshadowing, we are told that the brothers’ drunken father as a joke named his sons Lincoln and Booth.

Lincoln had been an expert card sharp, a sidewalk Three-card Monte dealer, but gave it up. Now he’s working as a white-faced and false-bearded Abraham Lincoln impersonator in an arcade. A humiliating gig, his job is to be shot by customers who pretend to be John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln has moved in with younger brother Booth, since Lincoln’s wife asked him to leave their home.

Having been deserted by their parents when the brothers were young teenagers, their dependence on each other produces a curious love/hate relationship, which begins as a subtle undercurrent, but explodes by the end of the production. Booth, who has never held a job and has always been sheltered by his older brother, has the temperament of an overgrown adolescent. His life goal is to become a Three-card Monte dealer like his brother Lincoln, but he hasn’t yet gained the close-hand skills and the gift of the patter, so he shoplifts instead. Booth’s girlfriend, Grace, seems to run hot and cold, at least from Booth’s perspective. She is the unseen third side of their triangle.

Skillfully directed by Kimberly Ridgeway, this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, with its taut and honest, street-smart script, keeps all the focus on the actors. Both Dorian Lockett and Michael Curry give nimble, raw, exciting performances. They adroitly hold our attention as they reminisce, laugh, argue, and circle each other, as they each vie to be the top dog.

The first act is a bit long, and there is too much Three card Monte shuffling and patter for my taste. It interferes with the tempo and the main theme of the play — trust. When their life experience has taught them to expect betrayal, betrayal becomes integral to the brothers’ psyches. It naturally follows that they became a con artist and a thief. They trust no one, especially each other.

Topdog/Underdog is not the only work by acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (The 365 Plays/365 Days Project, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) to play in the Bay Area recently. Her work, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II, III, about a slave offered his freedom if he fights for the Confederacy, recently closed at San Francisco’s ACT.

Topdog/Underdog is playing weekends at 2020 Fourth Street (Waterfront Conservatory building), Berkeley, through June 17.  Advance tickets are between $15 and $45 online, and you can pay what you can at the door. Subscriptions are also available on a pay what you can basis. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Ubuntu Theater Project’s website.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...