A Brutal Battle Of Two Brothers In ‘Topdog / Underdog’

George Anthony Richardson and Jovon Jacobs (Photo by Alicia Donelan) 

The rich thematic landscape of Topdog/Underdog is evident from the first moment that would-be dealer Booth, as he practices, and seems to engage the audience in, a rousing game of Three Card Monte. At least to me, combined with what vague knowledge I had of the play’s themes going in, it was impossible not to notice the dark implications of a line like “if you pick the black card you pick a loser.” 

Though this Pulitzer prize winning play by prolific Black playwright Suzan Lori Parks is now over 20 years old, having first premiered in 2002, it is still, somewhat depressingly, an incredibly relevant story for our times. It also seems to be enjoying a surge of popularity in the aftermath of 2020 and the associated cultural reckoning, and this year not only enjoyed a high-profile Broadway revival but a prior South Florida production. Yet despite a few flaws—most notably, a rather wearisome three hour runtime—this bold and provocative work is more than deserving of the attention, and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ captivating production certainly lives up to the play’s potential. 

The aforementioned landscape quickly complexifies when Booth’s brother Lincoln walks in, wearing whiteface and dressed to resemble his presidential namesake. As we learn a little later on in the show’s odyssey, this unusual naming schematic was their drunkard father’s idea of a joke. Both this unknowingly prophetic father and the boys’ mother “split” before the boys were grown, the former two years after the latter; and each left one of the boys a meager “inheritance” of only $500 each. 

George Anthony Richardson and Jovon Jacobs (Photo by Alicia Donelan)

While Lincoln “blew” his, Booth saved his, and the thematic idea of just what the boys have “inherited” — both from their dysfunctional parents and, more broadly, the legacy of trauma and oppression that inevitably comes with being Black in America, is also one that resonantly hangs over the play. As Lincoln wisely notes, there is often no grappling with history, even in his daily reenactments: people prefer it to “unfold” only the way that it was already folded up. 

Both Booth and Lincoln are, in their own ways, striving to better themselves despite the limitations imposed by poverty, racism, and their own angry despair. Booth’s obsession with Three Card Monte springs from the fact that Lincoln was once a master of the game, but has settled for being reduced to a cheap stand-in who could easily be replaced by wax dummy after a shooting scared him away from his old game. But Booth, having watched his brother’s hustle from the sidelines, sees convincing Lincoln to get back into it as a quick route to riches.

Thanks in part to the efforts of two masterful actors, both men are also effortlessly likable despite the more unsavory behavior that they engage in, in the service of staying afloat. For instance, Lincoln constantly numbs himself with whiskey, trying to subdue his inner fire, and Booth resorts to shoplifting and has a need for validation and dominance that becomes increasingly sinister as the play goes on. Throughout, both characters are searingly searching for some sense of worth in a world that remains all too eager to demean them. 

George Anthony Richardson and Jovon Jacobs (Photo by Alicia Donelan)

Jovon Jacobs gives another stellar turn as he embodies his character’s out-of-control nature, as George Anthony Richardson is a perfect foil as a seeming underdog for much of the play who only later reveals a harsher hand of cards. 

Set designer Seth Howard was likewise invaluable in creating the play’s shabby apartment setting, a fact I found myself particularly aware of when Booth at one point attempts to put together a candle-lit dinner set against this decidedly unclassy backdrop. 

Besides the suspense created by the characters’ power struggle and the way in which critical details about the boys’ backstory are tantalizingly revealed, there’s also a fair amount of humor to be found in the characters’ ironic circumstances and irreverent attitudes, such as the two’s bawdy talk about Booth’s girlfriend, Grace, and the results of Booth’s suggestion to Lincoln that he try and keep his job by making more of a “show” as he’s shot to death. There are also many profound lines with thought-provoking implications, such as discussion of the difference between a real deal and a hustle, between a show and the life underneath. 

George Anthony Richardson and Jovon Jacobs (Photo by Alicia Donelan)

Still, there’s only so long one can watch the same two actors, even brilliant ones, circle around each other without things feeling tedious, which made the play perhaps feel longer than the similarly sprawling August: Osage County, which at least had more dysfunctional relatives in the mix who might be able to shoulder the burden. 

The play eventually comes to an end both genuinely surprising and one hundred percent inevitable given moments of foreshadowing throughout the play, both subtle and direct. It’s then, more than I had throughout, I found myself pondering the implications of the characters’ namesakes; for whatever victories the world’s noble Lincolns may have, it’s often the more vicious Booths that end up surviving to fight another day. 

In any case, it’s hard to imagine anyone emerging unaffected or un-astounded by such an ambitious, well-crafted, and well-calibrated work and production. You only have until June 11 to watch this brutal battle of brothers play out, so there’s no time to waste in securing yourself a ticket!

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *