Power Struggle and Identity Reconstruction in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog

Emmerencia Beh Sih


Experimental Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, is an African-American who has added to the reconstruction of African-American identity through power struggle. In her play Topdog/Underdog, the rebuilding of identity for African-Americans is pursued, raised and enacted through power relations. Western discourses of power and identity have confirmed its insufficiency in the creation of peace, socio-political order and justice.  This is because, they see power as something which can only be handled by people from the top. This study deconstructs the leading Western discourse of power, brings in different discourses of power, and demonstrates that power does not only emanate from the top. At the core of the analysis is the theoretical backdrop of New Historicism. This theoretical position provides the conceptual praxis that this study maintains.  The struggle for power is seen in this study as a means of reconstructing one’s identity; as such, power struggle and identity becomes conflictual. The play discusses the fantasy of ‘pleasant life’ created by white America that Lincoln and Booth fail to be a part of. In order to participate in this ‘pleasant life’, they resort to the reconstruction of their identities as defined by their society. This study asserts that, in the struggle for authority, there is a quest for economic, political and sexual power. While Lincoln asserts his power and recognition by playing the black Abraham Lincoln, Booth stresses his through sexual power. In its conclusion, the study indicates that Suzan-Lori Parks’ drama addresses issues that bear meaning to the historical, cultural and socio-political environment within which it grows.

Keywords: Power struggle, Identity Reconstruction, pleasant life, topdog, underdog

The Discourse of Power:

The study of power has been approached in many ways, yielding diverse and valuable insights.  Robert Darl in “The Concept of Power”, conceptualizes power in simple terms when he says that ‘A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would otherwise do” (80). In every society, there are always people that can exercise power over others and cause them to act against their will. This does not mean that the victims here are powerless; they have power, but it cannot be exercised at equal levels.

Steven Lukes in Power: A Radical View thinks that power over others can be exercised by preventing them from identifying or recognizing their own interest, while Samuel Huttington in “The Clash of Civilization” thinks that in order for civilizations to move on smoothly, there must be one superior civilization to lead the others, and he proposes the Western Civilisation. To him, power emanates only from one direction – the top. Huttington thinks that the West is superior to the rest, as such; the rest should be able to look up to the west for their survival. His views were counteracted by Edward Said in “The Myth of the Clash of Civilization” who thinks that there is no superior culture. To Said, cultures have their differences and similarities, but this doesn’t make one culture superior to the other. No culture is superior just as no culture is inferior: all cultures have their strength and weaknesses; as a result, all cultures should be recognized, acknowledged, valued and respected.

Michael Foucault examines the changing way that power circulates throughout societies; constructing social institution as well as individual subjectivities. According to Michael Foucault, power is not necessarily expressed through the application of strong policy over the weak, or a domination of a supreme over its subordinate. Foucault’s concept of power replaces the tradition conceptualization of power. To Foucault, power is not centralized but dispersed: power comes from everywhere and nowhere. Power does not emanate only from the top. To him, power can be attained from every direction and from anyone and at all levels. For example, a teacher, though he/she can exercise power over his/her student(s), he/she may be answerable to another person, who may be his boss, client, a different person or student; while the student, though answerable to his/her teacher, also possesses some authority over his friends, siblings, mates, teacher etc. This demonstrates that power can be handled by all in different levels and manner.

Identity and Power Discourse in Topdog/Underdog:

The title of the book, Topdog/Underdog suggests there are a topdog and an underdog. In any case, the two must work together since there can be no underdog without a topdog and vice versa. The question here is who is the topdog? And who is the underdog? Topdog here may stand for someone who has power over another. The book highlights Lincoln as the topdog, but this study aims at deconstructing this view by saying that, the identity of a topdog varies between the two brothers, Lincoln and Booth. Some instances in the play indicate that Lincoln is the topdog, while the other instances show Booth as the topdog.  By recreating and maintaining their new identities, the two brothers fight over power in their different views to what they term as ‘power’. While Lincoln thinks that power is strengthening oneself economically and trying to survive in a society full of discrimination, Booth sees power in dressing in luxurious ways, and being in possession of women and money.

In Topdog/Underdog, one can see that power is spread between the two brothers at different levels. To expand on the concept of power, Foucault states that “power must be analysis of something which circulates, or as something which only functions in form of a chain …power is employed and exercised through a net like organization…and individuals are the vehicle of power”(98). Here, individuals are seen as the negotiators of power, which is to be performed in a certain context. This definition of power violates the top to down view of it, that is, it appears to be flat rather vertical. Foucault doesn’t see power as an aspect of supremacy and authority over the whole of social body, but power to him means power relationships with its diversity and different form it takes either in the family, association or organization. 

In Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln, in order to survive in his society impersonates a white character, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. By doing this, he gains more power economically than his brother who is jobless at that time. In his conversation with Booth, Lincoln takes a new identity, Honest Abe, a nickname of Abraham Lincoln:

Booth: He shoot you?

Lincoln: He shot Honest Abe, yeah.

Booth: He talk to you?

Lincoln: In a whisper. Shoots on the left whispers on the right.

Lincoln: “Does thuh show stop when no ones watching or does thuh show go on?”

Booth: Whatd he say, that one time? “Yr only yrself –”

Lincoln: “– when no ones watching,” yeah. (34)

The above conversation shows that Lincoln plays the game of disguise. There appears to be two Lincoln in one person, the white Abraham Lincoln and the black Lincoln, the impersonator. While alone, he is himself, and behaves in his normal way, but while in public, he is forced to put on another character, changing from his private self to a public self. He only does that as a means of strengthening himself and becomes powerful financially than his brother. Though he disguises to someone else, that does not really make him the person. Wearing the mask of another person is just a way of climbing the social ladder. Lincoln tells us that: “They say the clothes make the man. All day long I wear that getup. But that don’t make me who I am” (29). This is an indication that clothes/ masks do not actually make you who you are. Though Lincoln puts on another attire which makes him looks more of a white man, he never turn himself into a white man completely, rather, it reconstructed another identity for him:

…old black coat not even real old just fake old. Its got worn spots on the elbows, little raggedy places thatll break through into holes before the winters out. Shiny strips around the cuffs and thecollar. Dust from the cap guns on the left shoulder where they shoot him, where they shoot me I should say but I never feel like they shooting me. (32, 52)

Lincoln, who is not used to his constructed identity is even confused on where to use “him” (referring to Abraham Lincoln” or “I” (himself). At this point, Lincoln tries to emulate Abraham Lincoln and as such, taking a new identity. Stuart Hall et al in Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies define identity as the practice of becoming rather than being: not “who we are” or “where we have come from” (4). Identity stresses on the person you come to be, rather than stressing solely on your past history. The process of becoming someone else when you are not is a tedious job. This is because, if the impersonated state doesn’t favour you as presumed, you may be forced to come back to your normal self. Lincoln tells his brother:

I am uh brother playing Lincoln. Its uh stretch for any ones imagination. And it aint easy for me neither. Every day I put on that shit, I leave my own shit at the door and I put on that shit and I go out there and I make it work. I make it look easy but its hard. That shit is hard. But it works. Cause I work it. And you trying to get me fired. (52)

This is an indication that it is not easy to “try to be”. Therefore, it is important to be your own self, but in a society where “being yourself” is not valued, one is forced to construct and even reconstruct new identities just to meet up with societal standards. According to Jennifer Larson “The clothes themselves are just empty signifiers. Like a word, a name, or a mask, the audience brings the meaning to them and imbues them with significance based on experience” (125). The fact that Lincoln wears the clothes, it does not make him Abraham Lincoln, the president of America.  This is evident when he says, “Don’t make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that” (30).

Lincoln, in order to survive and still be the topdog over his brother is forced to pick up a job where he is not as well paid as compared to his white folks. The fact that he is black is already a barrier to him, as such, he needs to wear make-up to look white so as to secure his job and financial potentials. In their conversation, it is very visible that he is being paid less than the whites in that same society:

Lincoln: And as they offered me thuh job, saying of course I would have to wear a little makeupand accept less than what they would offer a – another guy –

Booth: Go on, say it. ‘White.’ They’d pay you less than theyd pay a white guy. (29)

Being black becomes a crime in a racially oriented society.According to Francis M. Deng in “War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan”, identity is used to “describe the way individuals and groups define themselves and are defined by others on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language, and culture” (1).The people in this society are being defined by their race, even the jobs they do are dependent on their colours. Parks, by presenting this portrays the American society and its high level of discrimination amongst the different races. The whites have advantages over the blacks; even when both races do the same job, the white race is highly paid than the black race, simply because the blacks are still viewed as ‘inferior beings’. By presenting such ideas, Parks may be saying that the African-America’s identity is distorted sometimes, as other identities are forced on them by societal construction, as a result, they are forced to accept them. She presents African Americans as a group that have generally been restricted into roles forced on them, and their identities have been defined by those roles.

Lincoln in the beginning of the play considers himself as the head of the family. He plays the role of a father while Booth, his brother acts like the mother in the house. Lincoln tells his brother, “you dont got no money. All the money you got I bring in here” (17). As far as he (Lincoln) is concerned, having and being able to bring money into the house is a fatherly duty: consequently, he becomes the father in the house. His employment gives him economic power over his brother, Booth who is unemployed. His financial advantages give Booth the urge to strive to be like him, and even surpass him. As both brothers want to show their powers, it ends up in a conflict between them as to who the ‘topdog’ really is. While Lincoln goes out to work, Booth takes care of the house. He sets up the dinner table and even tells his brother where to sit after his arrangement. He creates a piece of furniture and tells his brother that: “Im making a sorta modular unit you put the books in the bottom and the table top on top. We can eat and store our books. We could put the photo album in there” (13).

Booth, like his mother is the one taking care of the house and all its necessary arrangements. Though they have no book in the house, Booth recreates books to set up their dinner table like their mother used to. By doing this, it shows a strong link he has with his mother. Lincoln recalls his creation in scene five when he says: “the food on the table every night and listen to her voice [the mother] when she’d read to us sometimes” (68). Booth’s attachment to his mother makes him know what is beautiful from a woman’s perspective. This is evident in his reaction when he tells his brother that Grace, his imagined woman is coming for a visit. He arranges the apartment, puts “a lovely tablecloth” he sets “nice plates, silverware, champagne glasses and candles, all the makings of a very romantic dinner for two. He sits back down. He goes over to the bed. Checks it for its springiness. Smooths down the bedspread. Double-checks two matching silk dressing gowns, very expensive, marked “His” and “Hers” (59). After organizing everywhere, he looks from time to time to see if everything is okay. Booth at this point is recalling his mother’s definition of beauty. Looking at femininity from a typical gender stereotypes as associated with beauty and aesthetics, one is forced to place Booth in the womanly position. By looking at beauty from his mother’s perspective, he highlights the strong bond he has with his mother. He does all these without having any financial independence; he relies on his brother’s finances. His attachment to his mother makes him to act feminine than masculine which is opposed to aesthetics. As such, it contradicts his view of manhood and power.

By recreating the character, Grace, who is absent both in Booth’s life and in the play, is a way for Booth to boost his manhood since he realizes he is more feminine. Myka Tucker Abramson maintains that “Booth’s desire for Grace is at once sexual and symbolic: he wants to have sex with Grace, but that sexual act represents the salvation of his masculinity” (90). And her nonappearance in the play can be understood as “both Booth’s failure sexually and also the failure of his sense of self.”(90). Grace becomes a “pity” character who comes to regain Booth’s manhood. By creating the character, he tries to escape from his feminine tie.

The roles played by the two brothers coupled with the sharing of inheritance bring about power differentiation. While Lincoln inherited a small amount of money from his father, Booth inherited five hundred dollars from his mother, stored in her stockings. By passing on their inheritance to their children differently symbolically shows the passing on of mental tie. The legacy becomes a knot which bonds them together, and makes them attached to their predecessors even in their absence. This is evident as they assume the role of “Pa” (Lincoln) and “Ma” (Booth) (26). For Booth to accept calling Lincoln as “Pa” , and referring to himself as “Ma” shows that he accepts his position as an underdog and therefore sees his brother as the topdog. Christian mythology, just like in most parts of the world considers a man to be the head of the family. In the Cameroonian context, “Pa” is usually referred to a father figure, and “Ma” a mother figure. The fact that the stereotype of a man being the head of the family( although most women lead their families better) is still very much in place in some parts of the world gives room for Lincoln to be classified as the topdog and his brother, the underdog.

Booth strives to reconstruct his own identity and by doing so, he sees himself superior to his brother. To him, to be a man does not only depend on your economic strength, but it has to do with both your sexual and economic strength. He tells his brother that their mother asks him (Booth) to look after his brother: “She told me to look out for you,” Booth reminds Lincoln. “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.” By reminding his brother of his responsibility over him, Booth wants to assert his power and authority over him. Though he is the younger brother, he feels superior to his elder brother because their mother says so. Also, Booth shows some authority and power when he repeatedly tells Lincoln of his financial responsibilities. The fact that Lincoln leaves him to stay with his wife, Cookie, the house automatically becomes his and now that he (Lincoln) has been sent packing by his wife, he is to be seen by his brother (Booth) as a guest. Telling Lincoln about the house and his responsibility to take care of him is a means for Booth to assert his authority over his brother. In order to reconstruct his identity, Booth tells his brother his intention of taking up a new name. Though he feels happy about it, his brother challenges his view of just taking any name:

Booth: Don’t be calling me Booth no more, K?

Lincoln: You changing yr name?

Booth: Maybe.



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

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. (17-18)

Lincoln is aware of the realities of bearing certain names in his society, and his brother cannot see from the same lenses. One’s name makes up one’s identity. In a society like America that Parks presents, your name can shape your existence and even your interaction with the society. Parks uses the African-American identity to portray the reality of the people, as she pictures the dilemma of the people as the grip alternative identities for survival strategies. Their identity is symbolically presented as a three Monte game, where the ability and power to win is always held by the whites who are the player and the African-American is the ball that is being played.

Booth finally reveals his new name to be 3-Card which is being inspired by his brother’s former job as a 3-Card Monte player. Though Lincoln tries to discourage his brother for being part of such a game (because his friends were killed for taking part in the game), Booth vows on proclaiming his new identity; “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” (23). By changing his name to 3-Card, Booth is showing his interest in joining his brother in the tricking game.

 Booth’s love for power and money drives him to convince his brother to go back to his previous job of deceiving people so they could have much money. He tells his brother that: “No one throws the cards like you, Link. And with yr moves and my magic, and we get Grace and a girl for you to round out the posse. We’d be golden, bro! am I right?” (20). He uses women and fame as a bait to bring his brother back into the 3-Card business. He ends up seeing his brother as a threat to his economic success because he discourages him from joining the business. Lincoln becomes a barrier for him to achieve his gold and power:

Here I am interested in an economic opportunity, willing to work hard, willing to take risks and all you can say you shit eating mother fucking pathetic limpdick uncle tom, all you can tell me is how you don’t do no more what I be wanting to do. Here I am trying to earn a living and you standing in my way. YOU STANDING IN MY WAY? LINK! (21)  

The reason for Booth’s joining this game is to have money to keep is outward appearance in tact. He thinks that, identity is only what you see from the outside. For Booth, women will be attracted to him if he possesses money which in turn will give him a certain power over women. To him, having money gives you access to women, and in possessing both money and women, it means you have power, “…Pockets bulging, plenty of cash! And the ladies would be thrilling! You could afford to get laid! Grace would be all over me again”(20). For him to keep standard and be a good match for girls, he steals clothes from downtown stores just to improve on his appearance that stands as a barrier from having girls and boost up his manhood. Talking about some clothes he has just stolen, he pronounces: “Ima wear mine tonight. Gracell see me in this and she gonna ask me tuh marry her. I got you the blue and I got me the brown” (28). He steals because he couldn’t afford, yet he wants to keep his social status and women. He feels that doing that will make him more powerful since in his view, to be a real man you must control money, power and sex.

Booth, in order to demonstrate his power over Lincoln tells him about his sexual strength and his brother’s sexual weakness. He proudly voices to his brother that Grace, his former girlfriend wants him back. By doing this, he makes a strong mockery of Lincoln, whose wife rejects him. He even claims that, Cookie, Lincolns wife came begging him for sexual pleasure after throwing Lincoln out: “You a limp dick jealous whiteface motherfucker whose wife dumped him cause he couldnt get it up and she told me so. Came crawling to me cause she needed a man” (45). The fact that Booth doesn’t see himself as powerful as his brother makes him to struggle for sexual power.

It becomes certain that all what he has been saying about women are lies, when we are exposed to the sexual magazine under his bed. He uses this magazine to satisfy himself sexually after watching the pictures in it.  By seeing the girls in the magazine that he cannot meet up with them physically, his desire to have sex with them causes him to masturbate on the magazine to satisfy his sexual desires. He leaves traces of his masturbation on the magazine as proof for his sexual strength for Lincoln to see. Ironically, Lincoln is aware of it when he says: “You laying over there yr balls blue as my boosted suit. Laying over there waiting for me to go back to sleep or blackout so I wont hear you rustling thuh pages of yr fuck book” (44). When Lincoln opens up to him that he is aware of it, it doesn’t really bother him, instead, he tries to justify his action. Masturbation for him is a strength since you are able to release even without a woman. He tells his brother:“Im hot. I need constant sexual release… I’m a hot man. I aint apologizing for it. When I don’t got a woman, I gotta make do. Not like you, Link. When you don’t got a woman you just sit there. Letting yr shit fester.” (45). His sexual venture helps him assert power and hence redeems him from being an underdog. He also proves his power over his brother when he asks Lincoln about the condom he uses. To make it more intense, he tries a condom for bigger men to show his brother that he is stronger and bigger. He emphasizes this when he says: “As goes the man so goes the mans dick. Thats what I say” (45). Booth thinks that possessing a bigger penis makes you stronger and gives you another identity. Booth reconstructs his own authority through his sexual power.

Booth also maintains that, you cannot get a woman without a phone. He gives different steps in which one can draw a woman closer with simply a home telephone number:

She gives you her number and she asks for yrs. You give her yr number. The phone number of yr home. Thereby telling her 3 things: 1) you got a home, that is, you aint no smooth talking smooth dressing homeless joe; 2) that you is in possession of a telephone and a working telephone number which is to say that you got thuh cash and thuh where withal to acquire for yr self the worlds most revolutionary communication apparatus and you together enough to pay yr bills! 3) you give her yr number you telling her that its cool to call if she should so please, that is, that you aint got no wife or wife approximation on the premises. (32)

Booth thinks that just giving your home telephone number to a woman will put ideas in her mind, and before you know it, you must have won her heart. Booth tries to reconstruct another identity through his relationship and interaction with women. He presents women here as people who are helpless and solely dependent on a man and his assets for their survival. Hogg, Michael and Dominic Abrams in “Social Identifications: A Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations and Group Processes” see Identity as “people’s concepts of who they are, of what sort of people they are, and how they relate to others” (2). Booth’s relation with women here shows that he wants to be seen as a boss. To him, possessing a house, a telephone, nice dresses and money is all a woman can admire in a man. This statement tells us who he is and how he can react to the opposite sex if given the opportunity.

Furthermore, though Lincoln tells Booth about the two sides of the 3-Card game, Booth insists on playing it. “Theres 2 parts to throwing thuh cards. Both parts are fairly complicated. Thuh moves and thuh grooves, thuh talk and thuh walk, thuh patter and thuh pitter pat, thuh flap and thuh rap: what yr doing with yr mouth and what yr doing with yr hands” (75). From Lincoln’s description of the game, it shows that the differences are blur, and if you are unable to see well and learn the tactics of the game, you will be defeated. In spite of all his conviction, Booth insists on playing with the money he inherited from his mother. In their first battle, Lincoln who knows the ins and outs of the game makes Booth the winner so as to gain his confidence. After Booth picks the right card, he becomes full of himself thinking that the winner is the “stronger”. On the first two times that he wins, he asks his brother, “Who thuh man?! And Lincoln answered:  “You thuh man, man” (96).

In Booth’s opinion, winning against his brother in the 3- Card game is going to strengthen him economically and makes him more than his brother in every aspect, and hence makes him the “topdog”. Being shortsighted, he gives in his inheritance on their third play. This time, Lincoln wins and he is “the man”. Losing the game shows that Booth doesn’t have possession of power at any level, and hence a change of his desired identity. This angers him the more when his brother laughs at him: “Shit. Sorry. Iaint laughing at you Im just laughing. Theres so much about those cards. You think you can learn them just by watching and just by playing but there is more to them cards than that” (106). Booth, in order to liberate himself and maintain his power and identity as a topdog engages in violence.  He threatens his brother with a gun, points it to his face and before shooting him, he says:

Who thuh man now, huh? Who thuh man now?! Think you can fuck with me, motherfucker think again motherfucker think again! Think you can take me like Im just some chump some two left handed pussy dick breath chump who you can take and then go laugh at. Aint laughing at me you was just laughing bunch uh bullshit and you know it. (109)

Ultimately, Booth shoots Lincoln in order to get his identity back, his money, manhood, and his link to his mother.  The killing may have served as a restoration and freedom to Booth given that he has always seen his brother to be an obstacle for him achieving his goal. By doing this, he tries to show his authority over his brother. His definition of “man” here is someone who is powerful and not only the biological sense of the word.

The African-Americans presented in this text are forced to embrace alternative identities because they have been denied the rights to their own identity. As such, they had to look to another strategy as a means of survival. Eldred Durosimi Jones in Critical Theory and African Literature Today quotes John Harris who reiterates that “we must remember that to deny someone control of their own lives is to offer them the most profound insult, not to mention the injury which the frustration of their wishes and setting at naught of their own plans for themselves will add” (107). The frustration of denying Lincoln and Booth their desired identity causes a lot of conflict between the two brothers and their relationship with their society. Lincoln impersonates Abraham Lincoln and gets involved in 3- Monte game just to stay alive in the racially oriented society. His brother, Booth defines his identity by engaging in the 3-Monte game, lies about his involvement with women, exposing the power of his manhood and the killing his brother.

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About the Author:

Emmerencia Beh Sih hails from the North West Region of the Cameroon. She is a PhD candidate in Anglo-American Literature in the University of Bamenda, Cameroon, where she is also a part-time lecturer. She did her B.A. and M.A. in Literatures in English from the University of Buea, Cameroon, and has contributed a poem in the Anglophone Anthology titled Bearing Witness: Poems from the Land of Turmoil edited by Dibussi Tanda and Joyce Ashuntantang. She has also contributed poems in the Anthologies: Ripples of Endless Muses and Multifarious Shade of Life: An Anthology of Modern Poems edited by Dr Ram Avadh Prajapati. She contributed poems in another poetry collection titled Aulos: Anthology of English Poetry. Also, she contributed a short story in the Anthology titled Ten Great Stories of the Decade: An Anthology of Short Stories. She has also co-published an article with Roselyn M. Jua titled: “Dramatic Experimentation and High Culture in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus. She has published another article: The Game of Rewriting in Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood. Also, she contributed a chapter in the book Critical Perspectives on Dramatists: Themes and Techniques edited by Ram Avadh Prajapati and Sanjeev Kumar Vishwakarma.