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When Black characters double-deal to make ends meet, It's never enough
Stephen McKinley Henderson, left, in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” at the Hayes Theater in New York, Dec. 7, 2022. In the play, a Black man haggles over the concessions he’s being offered by his former employer, the New York Police Department, eight years after he was shot by a white cop. (Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- In “Between Riverside and Crazy,” a Black man haggles over the concessions he’s being offered by his former employer, the New York Police Department, eight years after he was shot by a white cop. In “Topdog/Underdog,” two brothers hustle pedestrians on the street and, at home, each other. And in “The Piano Lesson,” family members bristle at a scheme that would involve hawking a precious heirloom.

While these Broadway plays couldn’t be more different, they all similarly explore what happens when Black characters aren’t able to achieve financial stability through traditional, or official, channels. They are left little choice but to create and work in their own separate economies: A hustle is the only way the Black characters can even the playing field. And yet they never manage to do so — at least not for long. Even when one profits from a con, it’s a Faustian bargain that comes at the expense of another Black man’s opportunities.

Ultimately, there’s no real winning, no outcome that can undo the trauma of the past or dismantle the architecture that places a ceiling on Black futures.

In that regard, the shows mirror the reality facing many Black Americans who have dared to dream of financial success. Back in the 1930s, the setting of “The Piano Lesson,” federal housing programs under the New Deal segregated Black families by steering them to urban housing projects far from the almost exclusively white suburbs. The effects of these government programs, along with a variety of other exclusionary tactics used by agents and white residents — what we now call “redlining” — put many Black Americans at a disadvantage. (In Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” revived this past fall at the Public Theater, the Younger family experiences this firsthand when a white representative from the neighborhood where they recently bought a house offers them a bribe to keep them from moving in.)

And it’s not just housing: There are racial inequities in hiring practices, and in pay rates and retention in the job force; gaps in access to quality education and health care; and of course Black Americans are imprisoned at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans.

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” a revival of which is at the Golden Theater through Sunday, brothers Lincoln and Booth share Booth’s tiny efficiency apartment. Lincoln’s wife has kicked him out, and Booth refuses to hold down a job. Lincoln supports them with a gig as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, and Booth spends his days shoplifting, aggressively trying to woo an ex and planning his debut as a master of three-card monte. In some ways, Booth’s on top: Although he has no job, he gets along fine and still has his $500 inheritance. Lincoln’s struggling: a job that he fears he’s going to lose, no wife, no home and his own $500 inheritance is long gone.

“Topdog/Underdog” is full of hustles, games of deception and power plays that go beyond what Lincoln and Booth do with a deck of cards. Booth never subscribed to the losing game of American capitalism by getting a 9-to-5, and yet Lincoln, a former card hustler, now takes “nowhere jobs” and plays the 16th president in an arcade that underpays and then fires him.

Although the economy Lincoln built on the street was illegal, it was at least more reliable than what he faces in the traditional job market. Yet again, there’s a blood cost. After Lincoln pulls off the ultimate con — hustling his brother out of his inheritance — Booth shoots him.

Nobody wins. Nobody profits.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Between Riverside and Crazy,” now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater (and livestreaming its final two weeks of performances), had its off-Broadway debut in 2014, during the early years of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the play, Walter, a Black former police officer who was shot while off duty, has lost his wife and is being pushed out of his rent-stabilized apartment in an area experiencing gentrification.

He tells his son, Junior, that despite following the straight and narrow — “Married your mother. Joined the police. Paid taxes. Bought insurance. Got a Riverside Drive apartment. Had you. Put down firm roots” — he knew he would be cheated and disrespected. It doesn’t matter that he’s an “old patriotic, taxpaying, African American ex-cop, war veteran senior citizen,” as he says twice in the play. At the end of the day, he’s still just a Black man in America.

So he has no qualms lying about a detail in the shooting and later about demanding that his former partner’s $30,000 engagement ring be included in his new settlement. Given the circumstances, Walter’s con feels like reparations, not thievery. He successfully gets his payout and keeps his apartment, and the play ends with Walter ready to move on from his old life. But in this final scene we also see that his son has taken his father’s seat at the kitchen table. Dressed in Walter’s robe, Junior, an ex-con with a roomful of suspiciously acquired electronics, has been left behind. Although the city, in its deal with Walter, has expunged Junior’s criminal record, the play suggests that this is far from enough for Junior to build a life of success.

These plays depict dire times — contemporary times (“Between Riverside and Crazy” is set in 2014, and “Topdog/Underdog” premiered at the Public in 2001) when the American dream, which has been accessible to white Americans since before the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, is still so far out of reach for Black people.

August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” however, is set in 1936, during the overlapping period of the Great Depression and the Great Migration, when Black Americans were working to distance themselves from the economy that slavery built — trying to survive, even thrive, amid national fiscal insecurity.

When Boy Willie, a sharecropper in Mississippi, arrives in Pittsburgh at the home that his uncle Doaker Charles shares with Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece, he feverishly reveals his plan to become a respectable landowner. He simply needs to sell the watermelons that he hauled up there in his broken-down truck, and find a buyer for a family heirloom in his sister’s possession.

The land he wants to purchase isn’t just any plot — it belonged to Sutter, the white man whose ancestors owned the Charles family as slaves and who employed Boy Willie as a sharecropper. By cashing in on his family’s history, and pain, Boy Willie wants to buy a piece of the American dream that was stolen from his family generations ago.

Berniece is adamant that the price is too high, and she suspects that the recently deceased Sutter was killed by Boy Willie so that he could buy the property. Boy Willie goes behind his sister’s back to sell the heirloom, a piano engraved with the Charles family’s story of enslavement, separation and death, which is in large part a result of the instrument — a slave-owner’s anniversary gift to his wife, paid for in slaves. Although Berniece keeps the piano, and thus a connection to their family’s legacy, the cost is Boy Willie’s dream of the financial security and independence that would have come from owning his own property. (Although that dream, the play indicates, was always a delusion, because a Black landowner in the South would almost certainly be targeted.)

Wilson’s play is a window into the ways our country’s perverse economics make even one’s trauma psychologically too pricey to keep. At least that’s Boy Willie’s feeling. For Berniece, it’s too valuable to sell off and forget.

Boy Willie misses out on landownership, Junior loses his father, Booth his inheritance, and Lincoln his life. When it’s Blackness versus the American dream, that paradise of white capitalism, the house always wins.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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