Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has more important things on her mind, but one takeaway from her 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner, Topdog/Underdog, is surely to be careful when you name your children.
For their father, as a perverse joke, named his two African-American sons Lincoln and Booth. As a result, they have been pitted against each other throughout their lives and destined for a violent conclusion. He might as well have named them Cain and Abel.
But before they play out the historical inevitability of their namesakes, these two down-on-their-luck siblings will sustain a head-to-head rivalry that is alternately melodramatic, comic and ultimately tragic.
Since Palm Beach Dramaworks is committed to producing both Pulitzer-winning dramas and plays of the Black experience, it was probably unavoidable that the company would tackle Topdog/Underdog. And fortunately they have the services of a pair of crackling sharp performers in Jovon Jacobs and George Anthony Richardson playing the dueling bros.
When we first see Booth (Jacobs) in his shabby tenement apartment, he is rehearsing the street hustle called three-card monte, spouting his sing-song verbal patter while leap-frogging a trio of playing cards on a stack of milk cartons and a cardboard tabletop. It is a con he has seen his older brother Lincoln (Richardson) work often before, a step up from the shoplifting that has been his livelihood of late.
With no little irony, Lincoln has been employed in an arcade, impersonating his presidential namesake, sporting a hook-on beard, stovepipe hat, black longcoat and white face, posing as the target for would-be assassin customers who shoot blanks at him all day long. For this racial indignity, he earns $314 a week, enough for their rent and utilities, though less than the white guy whose job he inherited.
Bonded as virtual orphans ever since their parents abandoned them at an early age, it is Lincoln and Booth against the world. And if you see America’s inherent racism and violent streak in their plight, Parks is hardly one to disagree.
Orchestrating this sly and occasionally absurdist urban portrait is Belinda “Be” Boyd (Intimate Apparel), Dramaworks’ go-to director for the Black theater slot. She takes the play at a leisurely pace — resulting in a nearly three-hour running time — and she has muted the potential humor in Topdog/Underdog, but never doubt that Parks’ gut-punch impact still delivers.
The narrative is stingy on plot in favor of character development. Much of the second act concerns a candlelight dinner that Booth has planned for his — perhaps imaginary — girlfriend, Grace. If she is real, she is the second most significant theatrical no-show after Beckett’s Godot. Both Jacobs and Richardson take us through cycles of attraction and repulsion, though Jacobs’s Booth is ultimately the more histrionic assignment.
Making his Dramaworks debut, scenic designer Seth Howard renders Booth’s flat in ramshackle realism, with a trash pile just outside of the raised platform that defines the playing space. Brian O’Keefe’s costumes nail the brothers’ have-not status, while amusingly dressing Booth in the layers of clothes he has pilfered. And Kirk Bookman’s understated lighting still manages to chart the evening’s emotional ups and downs.
Topdog/Underdog was a controversial choice for the Pulitzer 21 years ago. While the critical and popular reaction to a revival on Broadway earlier this season suggests a more mainstream acceptance of the work, it may still prove a challenge to Dramaworks’ audience. But for those willing to fasten their seat belts, lean in and take this jaundiced journey with Parks, they will be rewarded with an eye-opening vision of the nation’s underbelly.
TOPDOG/UNDERDOG, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 291 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, June 11. $84. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.