As Booth (Jovon Jacobs) sat distraught and bewildered in a seedy rooming house apartment in an urban city after killing his older brother Lincoln (George Anthony Richardson)–the only person in the world that ever cared and loved him–the audience reacts to the drama with sadness and appreciation for what playwright Suzan-Lori Parks accomplished with her 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Top Dog, Underdog.”
The play premiered in 2001 on Broadway, and since then, Parks has generated themes tied to America’s history: racism, violence, and everyone’s ultimate hustle: staying alive in a world that has gone crazy. Though the pace of the first act seems slower than the second, Parks uses every single scene and dialogue between these two characters to keep the audience guessing as to where the play is going. Like the brothers’ three-card monte, the play shifts gears without warning, leaving the audience in the dark.
Directed by Belinda “Be” Boyd, the story begins with Booth rehearsing his three-card monte spiel, “Watch me close, watch me close now . . .” as his brother Lincoln arrives dressed like Abraham Lincoln—wearing a frock coat and stovepipe hat with his face painted in white, and carrying Chinese takeout.
We soon learn that Lincoln, whose name is the same as the historical character he portrays, earns $314 a week at an arcade playing a scene where customers shoot him. Meanwhile, his younger brother shoplifts for a living, always looking for the edge. He looks at his brother with equal parts disdain and admiration. Lincoln was an excellent card hustler, but after his failed marriage, he paints his face white to play a white president, long gone.
In a series of scenes, some dormant, others heated and often hilarious, Booth tries to convince Lincoln to teach him the card routine. Perhaps the only reason why he’s letting his brother crash at his place.
The two men are different in many ways, we observe, but they are bonded by a common family history—the parents abandoned them—leaving them each a $500 inheritance. Like the biblical characters of Jacob and Esau, twin brothers with a troubled and competitive relationship, Booth and Lincoln ultimately fight over their inheritance. And the family feud ends in tragedy.
“I love this play,” says Boyd when asked why she has chosen to direct this play twice—once in a regional theater in Orlando and now at Palm Beach Dramaworks. “I love Suzan-Lori Park’s work. She is an amazing poet, philosopher, storyteller, and portrayer of human existence. I’m attracted to these two characters as they represent both the worst and the best of humanity. The horrific things that can happen through loss and through struggle, the desire to survive, and the desperate need to grab on to the American dream and how it’s been sort of ripped out of their hands from time to time.”
I agree with Boyd. There are times in the play when Park’s genius can be seen in the way she manipulates the visuals on a large screen to reflect and expand the passages between scenes. But, I find that in this visual presentation, the narrative’s energy sags. It is, however, in the second act when the story gets heavier and the action accelerates that the narrative sharpens. All that aside, the play is never in danger of being dragged down. And the ending ensures that. Executed with an explosive shock, Parks leaves her audience with a clear understanding: the house always wins. Call it capitalism or economic violence, the two thematic elements represent “the house” in this production.
The title “Top Dog, Underdog” tells you these characters are in competition, but it transcends beyond the younger vs. older brother fight. The brilliance of this play can be best described by a New York Times critic in 2018, which named it “the best American play in the 25 years since “Angels in America.” Like the plays of American writer, James Baldwin, who was Park’s mentor, the article noted, “Top Dog, Underdog” pushes these great contenders onto a small boxing ring and lets them fight it out until the fateful end.
The end of this play. . . now, that’s again the object of my obsession and those who have been dissecting it since its debut more than 20 years ago. It’s reappearing on Broadway and regional theaters across the country. Why? The play was as relatable then as now. Feedback from today’s audience is the most pronounced. As with many plays before this production at Palm Beach Dramaworks, “Top Dog, Underdog” has inspired many conversations.
This is why Artistic Director William Hayes chose this show. “Right now, we need to scream, we need to say “NO to racism, NO to inequality, NO to anti-semitism. That’s why there’s only one human race,” he said before the play’s opening night last Friday.
Something else to note. In the play’s program, the setting shows as “Here” and the time as “Now.” Parks’ intention is simple as mentioned above. The play can easily be in English in North America or in Spanish in Spain or anywhere in South America. The universal representation of humanity in this play is obvious. It could also be about German or Latino brothers. That’s what Parks has done so beautifully. At its core, “Top Dog, Underdog” is about people moving through life—sometimes at a slow pace, and sometimes at shocking speeds with tragic consequences.
“Top Dog, Underdog” plays until June 11, 2023. To buy tickets, go to palmbeachdramaworks.org or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis Street in West Palm Beach.