TAMPA — A street hustler shuffles three cards atop piece of piece of cardboard, on top of milk crates. He eyes a gathering crowd as his hands fly, drawing them in with a sing-song patter that is half invitation and half taunt.
One of them is a diamond or a heart, the other two are clubs or spades.
"Who see red?"
That scene, which has unfolded for decades on the sidewalks of New York, sets the opening in Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks. Fluid Expressions, a brand new theater, debuted last weekend with the 2002 Pulitzer winner. This is a taut, brutal drama that must convey authenticity to work. The dialogue sings with vernacular and detail, tensions ease then spike moments later, just like they do in the outside world, audible in ever-present traffic noises and the occasional train rattling the walls of a young man's tenement room.
Booth, younger brother to Lincoln — their parents gave them the names "as a joke" — hopes to make it in that world, just as his brother did. So he's practicing, making eye contact with an audience of 17 on Saturday, daring them to pick the red card and put their money on it.
"You had the card but you didn't have the heart," Booth said when one audience member picked the correct card. This isn't too hard. Booth has the lingo but his hands are slow. He gets by as a penny-ante thief, but sees an opportunity in his new house guest, his brother.
India Davison, Fluid Expressions' founder and artistic director, directed this show and designed costumes. Clareann Despain co-directed and designed the set, the most striking element of which hangs on either side in gigantic blow-ups of yellowed 19th-century newspaper pages, showing classified ads for the capture of runaway slaves. That backdrop, juxtaposed with two African-American men trying to survive in a hostile environment, dares the audience to reject any relevance between historical past and the present.
These brothers could hardly contrast more, and thanks to the performances that tension is believable. Willie Hannah, as Booth, does well exuding the bravado of a character who hides his emotions, telling tales about imaginary sexual conquests and going to sleep clutching a Penthouse or Playboy magazine, dozens of which line the floor around his single bed.
Joshua Goff turns in a fine performance as Lincoln, the brother who always had his life more together. He is dubious, appraising, clipped and self-contained. Kicked out of the house by his wife for cheating, he is crashing here. And he's a little too polite, as if hiding a card.
We know about his past hustling three-card monte, ended the day a partner got shot.We know he now has a job in an arcade, dressed in whiteface, a beard and top hat as Abraham Lincoln. Now tourists, businessmen and home makers — the same people whose money he used to take on the street — get to "assassinate" Lincoln in the theater with a cap gun. It's a startling device, the kind Parks uses freely, and it takes a bit of getting used to. He falls down dead for them, and they have gotten their money's worth killing the man credited with ending slavery. This, Lincoln explains, is what the arcade — and we, by extension — means by "history."
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"They want it to unfold neatly, like a book," Lincoln explains. "Not all raggedy and bloody and screaming."
Booth wants his brother to show him how to conduct three-card monte. Because he consistently refuses ("I don't touch the cards"), we want to see it too. Eventually we get that chance, and the stakes couldn't be higher.
As Lincoln says, "When it's the real deal and there's money on the line, the man don't want you picking right."
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com. Follow @torch437.