Suzan-Lori Parks is the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama — namely, for her play Top Dog/Underdog, which is currently on stage at the Phoenix Theatre. Ben Rose as Lincoln and Bryant Bentley as Booth, two brothers sharing a small urban apartment, in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘Top Dog/Underdog’ at the Phoenix Theatre.It is the story of two black brothers, curiously named Lincoln and Booth, who share a cramped sleeping room and live hand to mouth. Lincoln works in an arcade as Abraham Lincoln, all costumed up, including white face paint, and customers “shoot” him. Booth doesn’t work, but he dreams of being a three-card monte hustler, like Lincoln was a few years back. Lincoln has left that life, though he was the best at what he did.
What we see here is what “just getting by” looks like. Much in the way that an August Wilson play shows us a slice of African-American life, so does Top Dog/Underdog — but it is rougher, darker and lacking in the charm that Wilson uses to pretty up the edges.
Ben Rose, fresh off Phoenix’s upper stage in Take Me Out, makes a complete transformation into his new character, Lincoln. Lincoln is laid-back, and is taking life’s punches — big ones, even, such as Booth having slept with his ex wife — in stride. Booth, played by Bryant Bentley, is constantly stimulated — moving, pacing, hands tearing through air. Bentley gives an all-out performance, managing to always keep Booth tottering on the edge of psychotic agitation.
The brothers are hot and cold, and when the two finally clash … well, you will have to sit through the two-hour-and-10-minute show to find out. The show is talky, the climax waits till the very end to be revealed — and you will get no conclusion. Good or bad, you will have to put some thought into this one.
Top Dog/Underdog, co-directed by Bryan Fonseca and David Alan Anderson, continues through June 13; 635-PLAY.