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TABLE OF CONTENTS Standards 3 Guidelines for Attending the Theatre 4 Artists 5 Themes for Writing & Discussion 7 Mastery Assessment 11 For Further Exploration 12 Suggested Activities 15

Š Huntington Theatre Company Boston, MA 02115 March 2017 No portion of this curriculum guide may be reproduced without written permission from the Huntington Theatre Company’s Department of Education & Community Programs Inquiries should be directed to: Donna Glick | Director of Education This curriculum guide was prepared for the Huntington Theatre Company by: Marisa Jones | Education Associate Alexandra Smith | Manager of Curriculum & Instruction


STANDARDS: Student Matinee performances and pre-show workshops provide unique opportunities for experiential learning and support various combinations of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. They may also support standards in other subject areas such as Social Studies and History, depending on the individual play’s subject matter. Activities are also included in this Curriculum Guide and in our pre-show workshops that support several of the Massachusetts state standards in Theatre. Other arts areas may also be addressed depending on the individual play’s subject matter. Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 1

Reading Literature: Craft and Structure 6

• Grades 9-10: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

• Grades 9-10: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

• Grades 11-12: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences from from the text, including where the text leaves matters uncertain.

• Grades 11-12: Analyze a case in which grasping point of view required distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 2 • Grades 9-10: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text. • Grades 11-12: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide and objective summary of the text.

Reading Literature: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7 •G  rades 11-12: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g. recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist).

Reading Literature: Key Ideas and Details 3 • Grades 9-10: Analyze how complex characters (e.g. those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the themes. • Grades 11-12: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop related elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Reading Literature: Craft and Structure 5 • Grades 9-10: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks), create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise. • Grades 11-12: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.



MASSACHUSETTS STANDARDS IN THEATRE ACTING • 1.14: Create complex and believable characters through the integration of physical, vocal, and emotional choices (Grades 9-12). • 1.15: Demonstrate an understanding of a dramatic work by developing a character analysis (Grades 9-12). • 1.17: Demonstrate increased ability to work effectively alone and collaboratively with a partner or in an ensemble (Grades 9-12).

READING AND WRITING SCRIPTS • 2.11: Read plays from a variety of genres and styles; compare and contrast the structure of plays to the structures of other forms of literature (Grades 9-12).

TECHNICAL THEATRE •4  .13: Conduct research to inform the design of sets, costumes, sound, and lighting for a dramatic production (Grades 9-12).

CONNECTIONS •S  trand 6: Purposes and Meanings in the Arts — Students will describe the purposes for which works of dance, music, theatre, visual arts, and architecture were and are created, and, when appropriate, interpret their meanings (Grades PreK-12). •S  trand 10: Interdisciplinary Connections — Students will apply their knowledge of the arts to the study of English language arts, foreign languages, health, history and social science, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering (Grades PreK-12).

AUDIENCE ETIQUETTE Attending live theatre is a unique experience with many valuable educational and social benefits. To ensure that all audience members are able to enjoy the performance, please take a few minutes to discuss the following audience etiquette topics with your students before you come to the Huntington Theatre Company. • How is attending the theatre similar to and different from going to the movies? What behaviors are and are not appropriate when seeing a play? Why? • Remind students that because the performance is live, the audience’s behavior and reactions will affect the actors’ performances. No two audiences are exactly the same, and therefore no two performances are exactly the same — this is part of what makes theatre so special! Students’ behavior should reflect the level of performance they wish to see. • Theatre should be an enjoyable experience for the audience. It is absolutely all right to applaud when appropriate and laugh at the funny moments. Talking and calling out during the performance, however, are not allowed. Why might this be? Be sure to mention that not only would the people seated around them be able to hear their conversation, but the actors on stage could hear them, too. Theatres are constructed to carry sound efficiently! • Any noise or light can be a distraction, so please remind students to make sure their cell phones are turned off (or better yet, left at home or at school!). Texting, photography, and video recording are prohibited. Food, gum, and drinks should not be brought into the theatre. • Students should sit with their group as seated by the Front of House staff and should not leave their seats once the performance has begun.



ARTISTS PLAYWRIGHT SUZAN-LORI PARKS Suzan-Lori Parks was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky in 1963 to Francis McMillan and Donald Parks. Her father Donald was an army officer while Parks and her two brothers were growing up, which frequently caused the family to relocate. Much of their time was spent in Germany, as well as many states in the US, including Kentucky, Texas, California, North Carolina, Maryland, and Vermont. Parks began writing stories at the age of five, and although her passions shifted to science as she got older, she ultimately returned to her first love of writing. After high school, Parks attended Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and German Literature. During her time at Mount Holyoke, Parks took a workshop class taught by the acclaimed writer and social activist James Baldwin. It was during this class, Parks believes, she found her calling as a playwright. With encouragement from Baldwin, Parks set out to increase her understanding of acting and stage work, attending the Drama Studio in London after graduating from Mount Holyoke. James Baldwin has described Parks as “an astonishing and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.” Parks wrote and produced her first play, The Sinner’s Place, in 1984. From that point on Parks never regretted her choice to be a writer. Her plays Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1990) and Venus (1996) earned her two Obie Awards. Topdog/Underdog made her the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2002). Her daring approach to the subjects of race and history have prompted critical comparisons to the playwright August Wilson. Similar to Wilson’s 20th Century Cycle, her plays center primarily on the African American experience, but her unorthodox writing style has made her work unique and groundbreaking. Parks has also written for the screen and published a novel in 2003 titled Getting Mother’s Body. Parks wrote her first screenplay Girl 6 in 1996 with director Spike Lee. In 2005, she co-adapted Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God into a made-for-television movie for Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo. She recently adapted The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Her latest work, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3), was also nominated for a Pulitzer. One of Parks’ more unique projects was 365 Days/365 Plays, in which she challenged herself to write one play a day for an entire year. The plays were then produced in over 700 theatres

worldwide, creating the largest grassroots collaboration in theatre history. In 2015, Parks began another innovated work, the interactive theatre and art installation called Watch Me Work at The Public Theater in New York City. The installations, which ran through December 2016, were open and free to the public and offered audiences an insider’s view into the artistic process that Parks used for all of her creative work. The audience was invited to come and watch her write, as well as take space to do writing of their own in the lobby of The Public Theater. The entire performance ran 75 minutes with the last fifteen minutes of the performance dedicated to a question and answer period with Parks. Audience members were encouraged to ask about her process as well as tweet any questions they may have throughout the performance. Suzan-Lori Parks teaches at New York University and is the Master Writer Chair at The Public Theater in New York City.

QUESTIONS: 1. Research other plays by Suzan-Lori Parks. Compare and contrast them with Topdog/Underdog, in terms of themes, characters, subject matter, and writing style. 2. R  esearch the writing and activism of James Baldwin, who taught Parks when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College. Why was Baldwin a fitting mentor for Parks? 3. Watch one or more installments of Parks’s Watch Me Work series at The Public Theater. Describe what you see. Who else appears in the installation in addition to Parks herself? What questions does Parks answer? If you were to attend a Watch Me Work session, what would you work on and what questions might you ask? Link: 4. In an essay entitled “The Possession of Suzan-Lori Parks,” Shawn-Marie Garrett dissects the various ways Parks’ plays have made an impact on the American theatre and how her work has positioned her as a leading African American voice in arts and culture. Garrett states: “Parks has dramatized some of the most painful aspects of the black experience: Middle Passage, slavery, urban poverty, institutionalized discrimination, racist ethnographies. Yet even as her plays summon up the brutality of the past, they do so in a manner that is paradoxically, both horrific and comic — irresistibly or disrespectfully so, depending on your point of view.” How can a work of art be both horrific and comic? Both irresistible and disrespectful? Do you agree with these characterizations of Parks’ plays? TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE


DIRECTOR BILLY PORTER: MASTER OF THE ARTS, NOVICE OF NONE Billy Porter’s professional life is not easily categorized or summarized, as his talents and abilities stretch beyond any one artistic field or discipline. From musical recordings to playwriting, his extensive resume makes him unique among his peers. Porter directed George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum as part of the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2014-2015 season and has pointed to the positive impact Wolfe had on him both personally and as an artist. Years earlier, as Porter was preparing to audition for college (he would ultimately attend Carnegie Melon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), a teacher suggested he look at Wolfe’s The Colored Museum for material. Porter recalls, “It was intelligent and new, and at the same time, it was a comment on all of the things my friends and I would talk about in terms of being black in America and being black in general. The most striking piece was ‘The Gospel According to Miss Roj.’ I was 15 or 16, coming out, and she was an empowered and defiant gay crossdresser. There was no apology for her, and that changed my life.” After a decade and a half of traveling back and forth between New York City and Los Angeles for acting work, Porter was pushed by difficult circumstances to ask for help from Wolfe. Porter had accepted the role of the man-eating plant in a Broadway-bound revival of Little Shop of Horrors, but the show’s director and much of the cast was let go, including Porter who found himself suddenly unemployed. He reached out to Wolfe, who offered him a chance to work at The Public Theater in New York City; Wolfe was not only the artistic director there but was also in the midst of directing the world premiere production of Topdog/Underdog. As a tremendous mentor and advocate of Porter’s work, Wolfe remarked, “You’re far too hostile and smart to be an actor, for the rest of your life to be in a room where people are telling you what to do.” Porter was given the opportunity to write and perfect his craft while also working with other talents in the theatre industry, including the Huntington’s current artistic director, Peter DuBois. One of the many fruits of his time at The Public Theater was a one-man cabaret act, At the Corner of Broadway + Soul, which he performed there and at Lincoln Center. Porter is also intimately connected to Suzan-Lori Parks’ masterpiece, Topdog/Underdog. He returned to Pittsburgh, the city of his birth, youth, and early education, in 2004 to star in the City Theatre’s production of the play alongside Ray Anthony Thomas. While returning to where it all began, he was also cast in Jesus Christ Superstar and Dreamgirls at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. He started his career in musical theatre and, spanning more than 25 years since his graduation from Carnegie Melon in 6


1991, has been granted many opportunities to return to the stage. As recently as 2013, Porter won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Lola in Kinky Boots, as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical and Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical. He was also featured in the Broadway production of Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed in 2016, directed by George C. Wolfe. But his career on the stage would be rerouted repeatedly, even after being cast in three Broadway musicals (Miss Saigon, Five Guys Named Moe, and Grease) early in his career, and his fate was not sealed. Porter, initially unsatisfied by his relative Broadway success, pursued a singing career, releasing the album “Untitled” in 1997, only to discover the many challenges of breaking into the pop music industry. Porter then decided it was time to pursue yet another artistic endeavor and headed off to the University of California, Los Angeles, to attend its screenwriting program. He has written screenplays, songs, and plays for the theatre and has never given up his pursuit of art that deals with issues that speak to him personally. Porter has wrestled personally with issues of race and identity, religion and sexuality and has felt the pain of love coming to an end — all moments and struggles informing his work as an artist. But he has also enjoyed opportunities for lighter moments, appearing as a guest judge on the television show “So You Think You Can Dance” and a performer at the 2011 Miss America Pageant. He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Law & Order,” and is a Grammy Award winner. Porter is unapologetic about his unusual career path or the many twists and turns of his personal journey. “If you’re true to who you are, you do resonate, you do matter. Now, I’m in a very different place in my life. I had to mourn the loss of the life I thought I wanted in order to get the better life.”

QUESTIONS: 1. Billy Porter is a multi-talented artist. Can you think of any other artists/entertainers who pursue multiple career paths? Do you think that crossing over from recording artist to film actor or talk show host to screenwriter is a necessity of adapting to competitive industries or a benefit of success? Or both? 2. C  ontinue your research of Billy Porter and his life and work. When do you think he got his “big break”? Was it a role on Broadway? Acceptance to a program? Or something else? What qualifies as a “successful” career? 3. Compare and contrast Billy Porter’s creative work with that of Suzan-Lori Parks, both in terms of common themes and subject matter, as well as the genres and creative forms in which they work. 4. Do you think pursuing multiple interests is superior to pursuing just one? How might focusing on one discipline increase or limit your chances for success?


Broadway production of Topdog/Underdog (2002), starring Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln and Mos Def as Booth

SIBLING RIVALRY: TOPDOG VS. THE UNDERDOG A reader or theatregoer need not look any further than the title of this play to recognize that it centers around the fight for status between the two main characters, who happen to be brothers, both sorting out their places in the world. The fight for topdog in their cramped boarding house room includes the tension caused by Booth’s desire for a more grandiose existence and Lincoln’s desire for an honest wage and a simple life. Booth desperately wants Lincoln to pull them out of poverty, not by working at what Booth perceives as a degrading arcade character, but by joining him in his card-hustling plans. But Lincoln, having suffered through the murder of his friend during a 3-card monte game gone wrong, has sworn off the con. While the rivalry between the brothers has persisted throughout their lives, Booth admits to Lincoln that being abandoned by both his mother and father during his teen years “was ok cause you were there.” The brothers also received an “inheritance” from their parents. According to Booth, “when mom split she gives me 5 hundred-dollar bills rolled up and tied up tight in one of her nylon stockings. She tells me to put in a safe place… and not tell nobody… not even you.” A similar discussion happens between Lincoln and his father who also gave him $500. “Hide this somewhere… don’t tell no one you got it, especially that Booth.” Perhaps each parent chose a favorite son and distributed the money accordingly, or as Lincoln imagines, they ran off together; “maybe they got 2 new kids. 2 boys. Different than us, though. Better.” In his mind the rivalry extends beyond Booth to siblings unknown who were ultimately loved more. Booth lashes out at Lincoln’s complacency. “[Mom] was packing up… She told me to look out for you. I told her I was the little brother. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. Yeah. So who gonna look out for me. Not like you care.” At the beginning of the play it appears that Booth is trying much

harder to improve his situation, albeit often through immoral and unethical means. He is dating a woman named Grace and says he hopes to marry her, having shoplifted a fake diamond to make the proposal, and is eagerly “fixing up” his place by putting milk crates together to form a bookshelf. And he wants his brother and his Abraham Lincoln “disguise” to be gone when Grace appears, as he feels this “reflects” negatively on him. For the most part, Lincoln is supportive of Booth’s efforts in love and career, going so far as to offer a hook-up for Booth with the old card-throwing crew. He shakes off many of Booth’s comments that are intended to make him envious, even while saying “I don’t want to get you jealous, though.” While Booth gladly takes Lincoln’s consistent paycheck, he is quick to lose his temper and often threatens to kick him out; Booth has trouble seeing Lincoln as a helper and not a competitor. Perhaps because Lincoln is the older brother, who regularly attended school and is capable of holding down a job, he manages Booth with an even temperament and careful advice. He brushes off his brother’s demands while ignoring his angry and insulting speeches; that is, until Booth callously recalls his seduction of Lincoln’s ex-wife, Cookie. As a result of this painful revelation, Lincoln decides to teach his little brother a lesson and challenges him to a game of 3-card monte with Booth’s inheritance, everything he has in the world, on the line. Booth, so incensed by the losses of the day, threatens, “Only so long I can stand that little brother shit. Can only take it so long. Im telling you.” Lincoln hustles Booth and secures definitively that he is and always has been the topdog. The only circumstance in which Lincoln is not the “winner” is when he chooses not to play.

QUESTIONS: 1. In her preface to Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks wrote that it “is a play about family wounds and healing.” Would you agree with this statement? Do Lincoln and Booth mend their “wounds”? How do they resolve their relationship conflicts? What healing happens in the play? TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE


social unrest. John Wilkes Booth, on the other hand, was a stage actor who would break the law, even resorting to murder to accomplish his goals. As a young boarding school student, John Wilkes Booth is believed to have visited a fortune teller who claimed he would have a short but lavish life that would “meet a bad end.” John Wilkes Booth reflected upon this prediction often, especially when he was depressed or times were difficult. Was it his destiny to destroy the symbolic figure he so passionately hated or was he emboldened by the notion that he would not live to be an old man, thus making him more prone to extreme acts? Similarities between the characters Lincoln and Booth and their respective namesakes are clear; Lincoln strives for simplicity by removing the dishonesty from his life, while Booth charges a path to success by whatever means necessary.

16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln

2. Which brother seems to feel the competition more between the two brothers, Lincoln or Booth? Are sibling rivalries common? What is normal or healthy competition among siblings? When does it become destructive or negative during a person’s formative years? 3. W  hat information is provided in the text about Lincoln and Booth’s parents? Who did their mother seem to favor? Who did their father like better? How might the parents’ behavior have affected the rivalry between these brothers? How do parents influence their children’s relationships with each other?

CHANCE OR FATE? In his infinite wisdom, or perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Lincoln and Booth’s father named his sons after two key historical figures, and these brothers would ultimately suffer similarly tragic ends as their namesakes. President Lincoln, famous for abolishing slavery and holding the country together despite the Civil War, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, five days after the surrender of the Confederate army, led by General Robert E. Lee. President Lincoln is widely considered one of the greatest American presidents, known as “Honest Abe,” a person who passionately fought for equality and morality during a time of great political turmoil and 8


It could be argued, however, that the Lincoln of Topdog/ Underdog was never going to escape his fate despite his attempts to run from it, while his brother, Booth, happily accepted it. Lincoln made a conscious decision to turn away from hustling cards after a friend’s death, and he admits “I was throwing cards like throwing cards was made for me... And I never lost. Not once.” He recalls, however, that something inside him was already changing. “Quit while you was still ahead. Something was telling you — But hells no... So I went out there and threw one more time... and Lonny died.” Lincoln maintains a dark suspicion that if he throws cards just one more time, he will suffer the same fate as his friend. As a result of this belief, he rejects Booth’s plans to team up in an act of self-preservation. But after suffering the brutality of a racist boss and his general disappointment with the track his life has taken, he chooses to risk throwing the cards because he’s not sure he can realistically go any further. To his great surprise, “they all thought I was down and out! They all thought I was NoCount has been LostCause… But I got [it] back.” He returns to throwing cards with only luck on his side. And outside of Lucky’s, the favorite hangout spot, with Cookie in the audience, Lincoln has an “evening to remember.” Lured into believing he is once again on top, Lincoln challenges Booth with a gamble of the leftover inheritance money. Perhaps the brothers should have heeded the warning given by their mother, not to marry, for she saw in their future the difficulty Cookie and Grace would cause or she may have simply lost faith after her own failed marriage. Lincoln, however, did not heed any of the warnings from her and pushed down the voice that kept him on a straight and narrow path for so long.

QUESTIONS: 1. Was the naming of Lincoln and Booth simply a joke? How was their father to know he would have two sons? Might Lincoln’s naming have had some other significance at the time of his birth? Using examples from the text, how do you think Booth feels about his name? How might Booth’s name have led to some “bad blood” between the brothers?

2. Did you predict the play would end as it did? Is there anything Lincoln could have done differently to save his own life and help his brother? Do you think all of the characters in the play were exercising their own free will or were they “hustled”? 3. Do you believe in fate? Or do you believe that life is all about the choices you make? Is it luck, destiny or something else that dictates the path of your existence?

MASCULINE IDENTITY “They say the clothes make the man,” Lincoln explains in Scene 2 of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. “All day long I wear that getup. But that dont make me who I am.” The Lincoln of Parks’ play earns his living by pretending to be another man by the same name — the 16th president of the United States. But this Lincoln is not a white politician from the mid-19th century. He is a black man living here and now who, with his brother, coincidentally named Booth, is trying to make his way in the world. Both characters want to play the alpha male, but the characters’ identities as brothers and as black men are tightly wrapped up in their relationship to each other and their society. As the younger brother, Booth is often fixated on autonomy and being his own man, out of his older brother’s shadow. He is frustrated by his brother’s critique of his 3-card monte hustle, but yet still wants to team up and work together, something Lincoln refuses to do. He holds over Lincoln the fact that their mother, who abandoned them, actually gave him advance warning and entrusted him with looking after Lincoln. But over time, Booth has grown resentful of this, too. “She told me to look out for you,” Booth reminds Lincoln in Scene 1. “I told her I was the little brother and the big brother should look out after the little brother. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. Yeah. So who gonna look out for me. Not like you care.” Booth further asserts his dominance in their living space by reminding Lincoln of his financial obligations. The room is technically Booth’s home and Lincoln, having been kicked out by his wife, Cookie, is only supposed to be a temporary house guest. Booth reminds Lincoln that his situation is precarious and that any number of transgressions could be cause for eviction. Lincoln owes Booth in more ways than one. “Yr lucky I let you stay,” Booth warns his brother. “Every Friday you come home with yr paycheck. Today is Thursday and I tell you brother, its a long way from Friday to Friday. All kinds of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while yr little brother waits for you to bring in yr share” (Scene 1). Lincoln is on more solid footing with his brother at the beginning of Scene 2 by bringing home a wad of cash, never a small feat when he is being paid less than the white man who was his predecessor as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator. Lincoln is not the only one doing an impersonation of sorts. Booth claims that he will take on a new name, thus reinventing his identity, but Lincoln undercuts his brother’s boasts:

Original production of Topdog/Underdog at The Public Theater (2001), starring Don Cheadle as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln

A NOTE ON STYLE Suzan-Lori Parks uses experimental conventions in the format of her writing, some of which appear in the quoted excerpts from Topdog/Underdog in this curriculum guide. Parks describes these conventions as follows: • (Rest) – Take a little time, a pause, a breather; make a transition. • A Spell – An elongated and heighted (Rest). Denoted by repetition of figures’ names with no dialogue. Has sort of an architectural look: Lincoln Booth Lincoln Booth This is a place where the figures experience their pure true simple state. While no action or stage business is necessary, directors should fill this moment as they best see fit. • Brackets [ ] – in the text indicate optional cuts for production. • Parentheses ( ) – around dialogue indicate softly spoken passages (asides; sotto voce).

Booth: Don’t be calling me Booth no more, K? Lincoln: You changing yr name? Booth: Maybe. Lincoln Booth Lincoln: What to? Booth: I’m not ready to reveal it yet. Lincoln: You already decided on something. Booth: Maybe. Lincoln: You gonna call yrself something african? That be cool. Only pick something thats easy to spell and pronounce, man, cause you know, some of them african names, I mean, ok, Im down with the power to the people thing, but, no TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE


even more so is having the goods to back it up. Having a working home telephone, for example, is something to boast about and tells other people, women in particular, just what kind of man you are. According to Booth, it shows that “1) you got a home, that is, you aint no smooth talking smooth dressing homeless joe; 2) that you in possession of a telephone and a working telephone number which is to say that you got thuh cash and thuh wherewithal to acquire for yr self the worlds most revolutionary communication apparatus and you together enough to pay yr bills” (Scene 2). Booth is eager to point to his own success, boasting in Scene 3 that his attractive former girlfriend, Grace, wants him back, drawing a sharp contrast with Cookie’s rejection of Lincoln. He questions Lincoln about his sexual experiences with both Cookie and his “other women on the side,” comparing them to his own conquests, even claiming that after kicking Lincoln out, Cookie “came crawling to me cause she needed a man” (Scene 3). But Lincoln knows that flash can only distract for so long. There will come a point where Booth can no longer get by “laying up in here scheming and dreaming to cover up thuh fact that [he] dont got not skills,” Lincoln points out (Scene 6). Bravado is not worth much without the abilities to back it up. Lincoln and Booth are distinctly different men. “You think we’re really brothers,” Lincoln wonders in Scene 6. “I know we brothers, but is we really brothers, you know, blood brothers or not, you and me, whatduhyathink?”

QUESTIONS: Self Portrait with Cropped hair by Frida Kahlo (oil on canvas, 1940) currently on display at MoMA in the exhibition Constructing Gender

ones gonna hire you if they cant say yr name. And some of them fellas who got they african names, no one can say they names and they cant say they names neither. I mean, you dont want yr new handle to obstruct yr employment possibilities. (Scene 1) Booth finally reveals his new name, 3-Card, which is inspired by the 3-card monte hustle he works hard to execute but that his brother performs smoothly with a seemingly natural ease. Lincoln tries to critique Booth’s work, but his brother grows defensive, insisting on asserting his new identity and skill. “My new names 3-Card,” he insists. “3-Card, got it? You wanted to know it so now you know it. 3-card monte by 3-Card. Call me 3-Card from here on out” (Scene 1). Lincoln gets it. He knows well how important a man’s name is in shaping how he exists and interacts with the world. If Booth is going to be a 3-card monte hustler, then maybe actually being 3-Card will help. Lincoln’s own experience has taught him that the costume he wears to work each day “dont make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that” (Scene 2). Booth believes, however, that clothes and image can make the man. “You look sharp too, man,” he comments when his brother tries on a recently shop-lifted suit. “You look like the real you” (Scene 2). From his perspective, looking the part is important, but 10


1. At the end of Scene 1, Lincoln tells Booth that their father once told him that he named them as he did because it was his idea of a joke. What might Lincoln and Booth’s father have found ironic or amusing about the names he gave to his sons? 2. Lincoln is listed in the published text of Topdog/Underdog as “the topdog” and Booth as “the underdog,” but playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has stated that these status markers change throughout the play. Why might she have chosen to denote them as such? When and why are there shifts in who is the topdog and who is the underdog? 3. In Scene 2, the brothers have the following exchange: Lincoln: It’s a living. Booth: But you aint living. Lincoln: Im alive aint I?  hat is the difference between living and being alive? Is Booth W right that Lincoln is not really living? 4. In a 2002 New York Times feature about The Public Theater’s production of Topdog/Underdog, journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk asked Suzan-Lori Parks whether, as an African American woman, she feels excluded from the American mythology that has formed around Abraham Lincoln, a white man frequently credited with black people’s freedom. She responded: “No. I’ve gotten two plays out of it.” What does Parks mean by this?

MASTERY ASSESSMENT SCENE ONE 1. What is Booth doing as the play opens? 2. Which cards are described as the “winner” and “loser” cards? 3. What “disguise” is Lincoln wearing that Booth dislikes? Why is Lincoln’s job ironic? 4. What is the relationship between Booth and Lincoln? Who is older? 5. What gift is Booth planning to give his girlfriend? What is her name? 6. How did Lincoln acquire an extra $20? What did he decide to do with it? Why is Booth disappointed by this decision? 7. What design plans does Booth have for his home? 8. Why is Lincoln living with Booth?

3-card monte being played on the street

9. What is Lincoln’s fortune from the cookie? 10. What is the new nickname Booth would like to be called? 11. What happened to their mother and their father? Why did their father choose the names he did for his sons?

SCENE TWO 1. What did Booth steal for Lincoln? Does Lincoln notice the gift right away? Why did Booth feel it was important to have these things?

SCENE FIVE 1. Lincoln comes home with bad news. What is it and how does Booth react? 2. What is Booth’s plan for the evening? Why are things not working out the way he imagined? 3. What trick did the brothers play on their father when they were young?

2.  What do Lincoln and Booth refer to as “medicine”?

4. What did Lincoln choose to do with his “severance”?

3. When Lincoln and Booth’s father abandoned them, what did Lincoln do to their father’s clothes?

5. What relationship advice did Lincoln and Booth’s mother give them?

4. Why does Lincoln think Grace would like his tie best?

6. While they wait for Grace, how do the brothers entertain themselves?

5. Why does Booth think they need a phone? 6. According to Booth, what is the real reason Lincoln makes less money than the person who had the job before him?

7. What are the two parts to “throwing thuh cards”?

7. Why is Lincoln worried about his employment?

8. Grace has still not arrived at 8AM. What does Lincoln want Booth to do? Why does Booth refuse?



1. Did Booth enjoy his night out with Grace? How serious is their relationship?

1. What success did Lincoln have while he was out?

2.  How does Lincoln try to help Booth with his card playing?

2. How does Booth describe his evening? What is the reason Grace was late the previous night?

3. Does Lincoln know who is sneaking up on him while he is working?

3. What new job does Lincoln tell Booth he got?

4. Why does Booth think Lincoln is better than a wax dummy?

5. What disturbing story does Booth share about Cookie?

5. What does Booth suggest Lincoln do if he gets fired from his job at the arcade?

6. What wager do Booth and Lincoln make?


8. Who loses the game? Does Booth understand what happened?

1. When Lincoln wakes up, what does he discover has happened to his costume? 2.  What nickname did Lincoln give his friend Lonny? 3. Why did Lincoln give up hustling cards? 4. Is Lincoln good at 3-card monte?

4. How does Booth memorialize Lincoln’s old job?

7. Why does Booth think he received an inheritance from his mother? 9. What does Booth finally admit he has done to Grace? 10. What does Lincoln try to give back to Booth? What is Booth’s reaction? 11. How do the characters’ names (Lincoln and Booth) foreshadow the play’s tragic end? TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE


FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION THE AMERICA PLAY In her preface to the 2002 edition of Topdog/Underdog, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks reflected on the inspiration for the play and its connection to The America Play, one of her earlier works. Both plays feature Lincoln and Booth figures, a thematic focus on the ways in which social history and personal history are intertwined, and theatrical impersonation of the same dramatic moment in American history in the form of black men being “shot” over and over again. One play helped inspire the other and their moments of synergy contain distinct differences that create a conversation about race, identity, and legacy of the most painful time in United States history.

(A Man, as John Wilkes Booth, enters. He takes a gun and “stands in position”: at the left side of the Foundling Father, as Abraham Lincoln, pointing the gun at the Foundling Father’s head) A Man: Ready. The Foundling Father: Haw Haw Haw Haw (Rest) HAW HAW HAW HAW (Booth shoots. Lincoln “slumps in his chair.” Booth jumps) A Man (Theatrically): “Thus to the tyrants!” (Rest) Hhhh. (Exits) The Foundling Father: Most of them to that, thuh “Thus to the tyrants!”—what they say the killer said. “Thus to the tyrants!” The killer was also heard to say “The South is avenged!” Sometimes they yell that. Moments later, it all plays out again, with subtle variations. “Thank you,” A Man says to the Foundling Father. “Till next week,” the Foundling Father responds. The Foundling Father is happy to 12


joe mazza

“In [The America Play’s] first act,” Parks explained, “we watch a black man who has fashioned a career for himself: he sits in an arcade impersonating Abraham Lincoln and letting people come and play at shooting him dead – like John Wilkes Booth shot our 16th president in 1865 during a performance at Ford’s Theatre.” Parks dubbed this character the “Foundling Father as Abraham Lincoln.” He is a grave digger who bears a strong resemblance to the former president. “He was tall and thinly built just like the Great Man,” the Foundling Father says, describing himself. “His legs were the longer part just like the Great Man’s legs. His hands and feet were large as the Great Man’s were large.” To add to his impersonation, the Foundling Father carries around a box containing several beard options that he can wear to complete his costume when he dresses as Lincoln and allows people to shoot at him in an arcade. Over and over again, he recreates the moment when Booth shot the president, who was in the throes of laughter:

Travis Delgado as The Foundling Father in Oracle Theater’s presentation of The America Play (2015)

replay this scene. In his respect and admiration for President Lincoln, the Foundling Father memorizes and recites some of that “Great Man’s” words, hoping to one day also “be of interest to posterity. As in the Great Man’s footsteps.” As Parks considered this character, “another black Lincoln impersonator, unrelated to the first guy, came to mind: a new character for a new play. This time I would just focus on his home life. This new Lincoln impersonator’s real name would be Lincoln. He would be a former 3-card monte hustler. He would live with his brother, a man named Booth.” Unlike the Foundling Father of The America Play, the Lincoln of Topdog/Underdog bears no physical resemblance to the former president, but applies a similar layer of whiteface makeup to the frock coat, top hat, and beard that are so evocative of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, the Booth of this world is not a role taken on by anyone willing to pay to do so. He is a real man who is connected to Lincoln by the closest bonds of blood. When Lincoln grows concerned that he may lose his job, Booth even attempts to coach his brother to add more excitement to his performance, suggesting that Lincoln scream, curse, and even roll around on the floor when he gets “shot.” Lincoln, however, thinks the embellishments may be a bit much. “People are funny about they Lincoln shit,” he explains in Scene 3. “They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.”

QUESTIONS: 1. The America Play is set in what Suzan-Lori Parks describes as “a great hole. In the middle of nowhere. The hole is an exact replica of The Great Hole of History.” Parks lists Topdog/Underdog’s place as “here” and its time as “now,” but its setting is specifically “a seedling furnished rooming house room,” usually inhabited by Booth but where Lincoln is also temporarily staying. Compare


Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002 for her play Topdog/Underdog. (DID YOU KNOW? Lin-Manuel Miranda received the Pulitzer for Hamilton in 2016.) Pulitzers are awarded for excellence in journalism, literature, and musical composition, distinguished by a total of 21 categories. Winners receive a cash prize of $10,000 and a certificate. Joseph Pulitzer, an American citizen born in Hungary, was a successful newspaper publisher who upon his death in 1911 gifted $2 million to Columbia University in the hopes of establishing a school of journalism and an award to recognize outstanding members of the field. Today, five judges are selected to serve on each jury panel (with the exception of the Public Service award which has seven), and winners are selected by majority rule. Parks was also nominated for two of her other plays: In the Blood (2000) and Father Comes Home from the Wars (2015).

QUESTIONS: 1. Do you think Pulitzer’s desire to educate and recognize talented journalists helped to elevate standards in print and news media? 2. Why do you think awards grew beyond this one field? 3. Why might a jury decide that no entry is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize in a given award season?

and contrast these settings, both in terms of Parks’ descriptions but also how scenic designers have interpreted and portrayed these places. 2. In The America Play, the Foundling Father recounts how most people who step into the role of Booth say one of the phrases the real Booth is said to have shouted after assassinating the president. How does this illustrate the point offered by Lincoln in Topdog/Underdog that people “like [historical events] to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book”? 3. Suzan-Lori Parks was working on Fucking A, her retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter when the characters who would become Lincoln and Booth in Topdog/ Underdog came to her mind. Similarly, she also created characters whose journey is the focus of another play, In the Blood, during this time. How do artists determine whether a new idea should be incorporated into their current work or become an entirely separate creative project? How do you know when an idea is a good one worth continuing to work on, even if it does not fit into what you thought you were going to create?

3-CARD MONTE: TRICK OR TRADE? Recently, 3-card monte has regained popularity through the acts of magicians who view the card game as more of “trick” than a game of strategy (illusionist David Blaine, in fact, offers a YouTube

tutorial called “Stand Up 3 Card Monte!”) But the con has its roots in Great Britain where it was originally called “Find the Lady,” referring to the objective of the game which is to locate the Queen. The game is straightforward and requires at least a dealer/tosser and a punter, who is a person unknown to the dealer. The dealer has three cards, with one card identified as the “winner.” The cards are shown to the punter and then thrown face-down together. The dealer rearranges the cards or uses other sleights of hand to hide the winner and confuse the punter. The punter then places a bet on which card is the winner. A dealer may also use “shills” or other accomplices to help with the scam, and depending on the number of local law enforcement officers in the area, may use a “lookout” to help with a quick getaway if necessary. A “muscle man” may be used to intimidate any unhappy punters who threaten to go to the authorities and a “poper” seeks out a gullible punter to begin with. If a punter guesses right, the dealer may refuse his bet and accept one from the shill who has purposely wagered incorrectly.

QUESTIONS: 1. Who do you think is the better 3-card monte dealer, Lincoln or Booth? Who do you think would be the better punter? 2. Why is it important to have a “team” in place to make this con work? Why do you think Booth was so insistent that Lincoln help him hustle cards? 3. Do you think becoming a 3-card monte dealer would be exciting? If the punters know the con and still want to play, is it still a hustle? Why might some people enjoy the challenge of a 3-card monte game? 4. Now try it for yourself! Can you hide the queen or other winning card? Can you guess where the card is? What strategies can you employ to be both a successful dealer and punter?

THE LINCOLN ASSASSINATION On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, along with guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, settled into their box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, to watch Our American Cousin, a play by English playwright Tom Taylor. The foursome arrived at the theatre late and received a standing ovation from the packed house of 1700 when the play was paused for a rendition of “Hail to the Chief.” Meanwhile, celebrated stage actor John Wilkes Booth waited for his cue. Although Booth was not an actor in this particular production, he was quite familiar with it and knew that a line was approaching that would cause the audience to erupt with laughter. At that moment, he would enter the box and shoot the president. Booth was a frequent performer at Ford’s Theatre; President Lincoln had seen him in many productions, was known to be a fan of Booth’s work, and invited him more than once to visit the White House. Booth declined the president’s invitations. A Confederate sympathizer born in Maryland, Booth opposed the abolition of slavery and blamed President Lincoln for pushing the country to war. As Southern defeat loomed, Union General Ulysses S. Grant TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE


Currier and Ives hand-colored lithograph print of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (1865)

called for an end to prisoner-of-war exchanges, hoping to starve the Confederate army of its human resources and bring the war to a final close. This decision enraged Booth, who had already attended several secret meetings with Confederate agents hiding out in Montreal and Boston. In March of 1865, Booth assembled a group of conspirators and made plans to kidnap Lincoln and hold him as a captive of the Confederate army until the Union agreed to resume the prisoner exchange. This plot was thwarted, however, by a simple change in the president’s itinerary. On April 11, 1865, with surrender of the Confederate army days away, President Lincoln gave a speech in front of the White House in which he advocated for black suffrage. For Booth, who was part of the crowd amassed there to listen, the speech was a tipping point. He vowed that he would end the president’s life. Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant the following day. On April 14 while on an errand to Ford’s Theatre, Booth learned that President and Mrs. Lincoln planned to attend that evening’s performance of Our American Cousin. Booth and two other men engaged in a conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln as well as Vice 14


President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward in the belief that this would cripple the Union government. Booth, however, was the only conspirator to succeed in his assignment. Lewis Powell managed to wound but not kill Seward in his attack, while George Atzerodt backed out and made no attempt on Johnson’s life.

QUESTIONS: 1. In Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Topdog/Underdog, the characters are named after the president and his assassin. Given these names, was it inevitable fate that Booth would kill his brother, Lincoln? Why or why not? 2. John Wilkes Booth plotted on multiple occasions to attack President Lincoln. How does the Booth of Topdog/Underdog attack his brother? 3. In Parks’ play, Lincoln is considered “the topdog” and Booth “the underdog.” Do those descriptions also apply to President Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth? Why or why not?

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES QUOTABLE MOMENTS The following quote appears as an epigraph to Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog: “I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Transcendentalist philosopher who believed that humans can experience divinity through nature. Why might Parks have selected this particular quote to preface her play? How does this sentiment relate to the characters’ stories? Choose one of the following quotes from Topdog/Underdog. Write an essay analyzing the quote’s meaning. Consider: • Which character said it? • Does the character mean it literally or is there an unspoken subtext? • What does this statement reveal about the character’s way of looking at the world? •H  ow do the character’s actions support or contradict the quote? • Do other characters seem to agree or disagree?  • How does the quote contribute to the forward progression of the scene and of the plot as a whole? I’m down with the power to the people thing, but, no ones gonna hire you if they can’t say yr name. Today is Thursday and I tell you brother, it’s a long way from Friday to Friday. All kinds of things can happen. All kinds of bad feelings can surface and erupt while yr little brother waits for you to throw in yr share. “Waste not want not.” Scheming and dreaming… with yr moves and my magic, and we get Grace and a girl for you to round out the posse. She just said it again. That I should look out for you. Yeah. So who gonna look out for me. People know the real deal. When people know the real deal it ain’t a hustle. They say clothes make the man. All day long I wear that getup. But that don’t make me who I am.

nile hawver

People are funny… They like it to unfold [history] the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming. Cause you can’t.No matter what you do you can’t get back to being who you was. Best you can do is just pretend to yr old self. I ain’t laughing at you, bro, Im just laughing… This game is — there is just so much to it.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson as Lincoln and Matthew J. Harris as Booth in the Huntington’s production of Topdog/Underdog

Ima take back my inheritance too. It was mines anyhow. Even when you stole it from me it was still mines cause she gave it to me. She didn’t give it to you. And I been saving it all this while. TOPDOG/UNDERDOG CURRICULUM GUIDE



5-MINUTE PLAY Divides students into pairs to plan and rehearse a summary of Topdog/Underdog. Each pair must identify 5-6 key moments in the play to recreate. Students may use tableau (frozen image that tells a story), pantomime (storytelling with all movement), or dialogue. Discuss: What similarities and differences were there amongst the performances? What key moments did each pair share? How did each group determine which elements of the story to keep in their performance?


Playwright and educator James Baldwin, who played an important role in inspiring Parks to become a playwright

WORKS BY SUZAN-LORI PARKS • The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1992) • The America Play (1994) • Venus (1996) • In the Blood (1999) • Fucking A (2000) • 365 Days/365 Plays (2006) • Porgy and Bess (2011 — adaptation with Deirdre L. Murray) • Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 (2014) • Commencement Speech at Mount Holyoke College (2001): VIDEO • Watch Me Work: fulltext=watch%20me%20work&f%5B0%5D=field_ post_type%3A355 WORKS BY JAMES BALDWIN • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) • The Amen Corner (1954) • Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) • If Beale Could Talk (1974) • The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)



Ask students to choose one character from Topdog/Underdog (characters who are spoken about and not seen are options as well) and create a character collage. Students can use paper, sketches, paint, fabric pieces, photographs, magazine and newspaper clippings and quotes from the play that express the character’s conflicts, relationships and emotions. Encourage students to consider texture and color when making decisions to best represent their chosen character. Have students share their work with the class without naming the character. By picking out the qualities of each collage, ask the class to guess which character the collage represents.

CHARACTER SOUNDTRACK Ask students to create a playlist for either Lincoln or Booth. Students may choose songs they think the characters would like, songs that remind them of the character or songs that speak to the character’s role in the play. Ask students to choose one song from the playlist that they think is a good theme song for their selected character and explain how it reflects the character’s personality or circumstances.












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Topdog/Underdog Curriculum Guide  
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