Identity is never fully shaped. Even as people grow up, there is a struggle to figure out who we are. There are social, personal, and economic circumstances that help shape one’s image, but it never truly helps define a person. In Suzan-Lori Parks play, Topdog/Underdog, a young man named after the infamous President Lincoln, struggles to find his own identity. Lincoln works in an arcade, ironically, as a President Lincoln impersonator. Many parallels are drawn between President Lincoln, and Lincoln the protagonist. For one, his brother Booth, refers to him as “Honest Abe,” or just as president “Lincoln.” Booth does so in a way that mocks Lincoln’s habits, which in turn causes inner turmoil within Lincoln because his identity is being shaped by his job and name, instead of his character. Lincoln’s identity is shaped by what he states in the play and society, though this creates two identities that struggle to establish themselves.
Two identities are created when Booth refers to Lincoln as “Honest Abe.” Throughout the play, Booth tries to convince Lincoln to revert back to his gambling days, though Lincoln refuses. When Lincoln does so, Booth states, “You play Honest Abe. You ain’t going back but you going all the way back. Back to way back then when folks was slaves…” Here, Booth acknowledges that Lincoln plays a role that is separate from his identity, though he smites Lincoln by comparing him to Abraham Lincoln. This is important because Lincoln’s identity is closely compared to Abraham Lincoln, leaving Lincoln without much characterization of his own, and he set to be compared to a person who is often regarded with goodness. The dichotomy that is set with Lincoln’s flaws and Abraham Lincoln’s goodness illuminates how even an “underdog”(Lincoln) can be destined for good things while the “top dog”(Abraham) can be just as flawed, though this is not directly stated in the play. In the play, there are some instances when Lincoln’s past is revealed (i.e. how he was married to Cookie). It is instances like this that separate Lincoln from his famously named doppelganger because Lincoln does not fully adopt Abraham Lincoln’s persona, though other people do try to do it for him. It is also important to note how Booth states that Lincoln plays “Honest Abe,” instead of stating that Lincoln is “Honest Abe,” because the comparison that Booth makes signifies how Booth forcibly tries to establish an identity that does not at all fit Lincoln.
Though Booth tries to make an identity for his brother, Lincoln fights to establish his own. When Booth continuously compares Lincoln to his famous “counterpart,” Lincoln states, “Don’t make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before that.” Here, not only does Lincoln defend himself but he also establishes the fact that he is a different person than Abraham Lincoln. Also, by stating that he was his own person before his job at the arcade, illuminates how different aspects of one’s life can greatly define someone. Furthermore, Lincoln continuously draws lines that divide him and Abraham Lincoln when Booth asks, “He shoot you?” and Lincoln replies, “He shot Honest Abe, yeah.” Again, though Lincoln has the same name as a famous person, this does not mean that a name can help define who a person is. It is also important to note how Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln’s circumstances are similar. Lincoln works as an impersonator and pretends to get shot daily, and suffers a constant social tragedy, while Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was a tragic death. This is important to note because Park’s choice in naming Lincoln, “Lincoln,” automatically sets up his character for tragedy.
The question now is, can Lincoln or Booth survive in a world where they can be identified as separate from the celebrity name? The play deals with this question and ends with the question being unanswered. For the question to remain unanswered suggests that one’s identity is in the control of the individual, but it is up to the same individual to somehow overcome social circumstances to establish who they think they deserve to be.
Named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next New Wave,” in 2002 Suzan-Lori Parks became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her Broadway hit Topdog/Underdog. A MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient, she has also been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is recipient of a Lila-Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, a CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts (Drama) for 1996, a Guggenheim Foundation Grant and is an alumnae of Mount Holyoke College and New Dramatists. (Bio adapted from Parks’ website).