Marin’s Topdog makes power plays into powerful play

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Bowman Wright (left) is Lincoln and Biko Eisen-Martin is Booth, brothers juggling for the title of Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Marin Theatre Company. Below: Wright in costume for Lincoln’s day job as a presidential target in a shooting gallery. Photos by David Allen

“Know what is and what ain’t,” one brother advises another in Suzan-Lori Parks’ mesmerizing play Topdog/Underdog. Telling what is from what ain’t is a tricky business in this deceptively straightforward play about an older brother named Lincoln and a younger brother named Booth. You don’t expect men with those names – chosen by their father, who liked a joke – not to come to blows, and given we see a pistol within the first few minutes of the play, it’s not really surprising when Parks goes from contemporary to Greek drama in a single gunshot.

Parks’ Topdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002, and shortly after the play’s run on Broadway, it stopped in at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, where Parks’ extraordinary language, rich with urban slang frothed into gritty poetry and laced with deeply felt emotion, made a huge impression and justified all the fuss being made over the play.

Nearly a decade later, the play is back, this time at Marin Theatre Company, and though that language and its rhythms are still very much present in the play, what comes through most strongly in director Timothy Douglas’ production is the pull of family ties and the inescapable power of the past to shape the present.

If some of the rhythms of the 2 1/2-hour play seemed off at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, actors Bowman Wright as Lincoln and Biko Eisen-Martin as Booth still etched vivid characters that only grew more complex as the evening wore to its inevitable close. The older brother/younger brother dynamic creates real tension here, especially in an early dinner scene when we learn that Lincoln, separated from his wife, is bunking with Booth in his squalid apartment only temporarily. But of the two, only Lincoln has a steady job. He dresses up as Honest Abe, stovepipe hat, beard, white face and all, and lets people reenact the Lincoln assassination at a shooting gallery. Booth, on the other hand, is striving to master his brother’s old grift: three-card monte. On this night, Lincoln has brought home Chinese food for dinner, but who sets the table, who paid for the food and who’s a guest in whose home becomes one of many power plays both large and small.

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Another interesting dynamic between the two men involves their parents, who both abandoned the boys at different times. First the dad left, then, when the boys were 11 and 16, the mom took off. When the dad bolted, he left Lincoln with $500. When it was mom’s turn, she rolled five $100 bills and tucked them in a nylon stocking for Booth. Each boy, then, has become allied in a way to a particular parent, and that comes into their brotherly dynamic in interesting ways.

Wright as Lincoln gives a performance that sneaks up on you. He’s so laid back and disconnected as to be not fully present on stage. But as Booth slowly pulls his brother back into the card game (cards and games seem to take on heavy metaphorical weight here), Wright really comes to life.

Eisen-Martin’s Booth, on the other hand, is all nervous energy and desperation. He loves his brother but wants to top his brother. He’s got abandonment issues and a needy ego. To impress his girlfriend, Grace, he “boosts” slick suits for both him and Lincoln, and when it comes time to make dinner for Grace, he steals champagne (and crystal glasses) and a beautiful dinner service. But when he is spurned by the object of his affection, his flashes of charm quickly turn to flaring danger.

Director Douglas’ production heightens the otherworldly aspect of Parks’ play even while he grounds it in familiar familial tensions. Mikiko Useugi’s set puts a realistically run-down apartment (the brothers joke they live in the third world) in a sort of patriotic purgatory, with American flags and stars-and-stripes bunting surrounding reality in faded colors and unsettling angles.

It’s an appropriately off-kilter world for this story, with is both recognizable and foreign, a family drama that stretches from here back to Cain and Abel, and a modern work of art that fractures contemporary culture through the prism of a provocative and powerful playwright.

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog continues an extended run through Oct. 28 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $36-$57. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Ruined but resilient, horrifying but beautiful

Oberon K.A. Adjepong (left) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Below: Carla Duren is restrained by Kola Ogundiran (left) and Okierete Onaodowan. Photos courtesy of

The evil that men do – and have done and continue to do – certainly does live after them. Shakespeare was so right about that. It lives and festers and poisons and leads to more evil.

This is incredibly apparent in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

Acts of unspeakable, incomprehensible violence occur, but it’s the echoes of those acts that ring most loudly in this compelling, ultimately shattering theatrical experience. There’s a war depicted on stage, but it’s not the chaotic, constantly shifting free-for-all of militias and government forces in East Africa. Rather, it’s the war waged on the bodies of thousands of that region’s women.

A part of a campaign of terror (and due in no small part to the centuries-old tradition of men in packs behaving like savages) soldiers of all stripes brutally rape and torture the women in their perceived purview.

Taking inspiration from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, another tale of a resourceful woman surviving in wartime, Nottage gives us the morally ambiguous Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), proprietor of a jungle whorehouse, where the beer and the orange Fanta sodas are cold and the women are…well, ruined.

To be ruined in this culture is to have been with a man other than your husband – even if that man abducted and raped you. These women, victims as much of their culture as the violence of men, become refugees, and Mama Nadi offers them something of a safe haven.

They get food and a place to sleep. In exchange, they pleasure miners and militiamen, rebel leaders and fast-talking traders. It’s a living – one level of hell traded for another.

Act 1 of director Liesl Tommy’s powerful production is slow to start. The plot doesn’t really kick in until the more emotionally gripping second act, but we get a strong sense of place from Clint Ramos’ set, with the encroaching jungle creeping into the rustic interior of Mama Nadi’s establishment.


With nine men in the cast overpowering the four women, we immediately feel the precarious nature of the world these women inhabit. On an average night at Mama Nadi’s they are handled like useful garbage, roughly pawed and groped in the better moments and taken offstage for the worst moments. We may not see what happens, but we feel it.

That’s the power of Ruined. Nottage takes her time telling the story – primarily of Mama Nadi and two newly arrived girls, Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren). Each of these women has an unfolding story of violence and resilience, and each of these formidable actors brings the depth and compassion these stories deserve. And boy do we feel the pushing and pulling of their lives

There are scenes and stories in this 2 ½-hour play (a co-production of Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company and La Jolla Playhouse) that are hard to watch. But then you think about how Nottage traveled to Uganda to interview Congolese refugees and how sharing their stories, as wrenching as it may be to watch them, is nothing, nothing compared to living them.

Such horrors are nothing new in the shameful history of mankind, but these atrocities are happening on our watch. Experiences like Ruined aren’t about instilling guilt in Western audiences as much as they are about raising awareness and inciting compassion.

The wonder of Ruined emerges in moments of beauty – whether in a song performed by Sophie (backed by musicians Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry), an athletic dance performed by the male patrons of Mama Nadi’s (choreographed by Randy Duncan) or a flash of brave compassion from a surprising source.

In the face of mankind at its worst, there can be sparks of beauty and enlightenment, of fleeting joy amid horror. Those sparks – much like extraordinary pieces of theater – are what we aim for.


Ruined continues through April 10 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

Delighted by `Ruined,’ Nottage nabs Pulitzer

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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Photo by the LA Times

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play, about a Congolese brothel run by a woman named Mama Nadi, is about a country torn apart by civil war and about a woman who is either protecting women or profiting from them. The play began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and is now off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old Nottage told the Associated Press: “I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn’t find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself. I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It’s very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case.”

Nottage’s best known work, Intimate Apparel, had a successful run in the Bay Area with a 2005 production from Mountain View’s TheatreWorks. That same year, San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy.

Less successful was a 2002 production of Nottage’s Las Meninas at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Nottage holds degrees from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She also is an alumna of New Dramatists. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, and daughter Ruby.

The Pulitzer finalists were:
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions.
In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.

And this year’s jury comprised Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair); John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University; Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune; David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY; and Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday.

Visit for a complete list of this year’s winners.

Here’s Nottage doing a radio show on the topic of Ruined, with Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays Mama Nadi:

Letts’ bittersweet Pulitzer

News came down from on high today that Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, currently on Broadway, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The Chicago playwright and actor is the author of Man from Nebraska (a Pulitzer contender) Bug (also a movie starring Ashley Judd) and Killer Joe, a hit for Marin Theatre Company that transferred to the Magic in San Francisco.

The award is somewhat bittersweet becuse Letts’ father, the actor Dennis Letts, who played the role of the troubled father in August: Osage Country, died in February after a fight with lung cancer.

August: Osage County, which originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre (where Letts is an artistic associate) ends its run at the Imperial Theatre on April 20 and resumes production at the Music Box Theatre April 29.

Check out Chris Jones’ Chicago Tribune coverage (includes video of the Pulitzer celebration and scenes from the play) here.

Also nominated this year as finalists in the drama category were: Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, and Dying City by Christopher Shinn.