Though I like to be entertained when I watch a movie or see a play, I don’t require that everything I watch ends happily or promises rosy futures. This weekend I swallowed a double dose of dark drama that reminded me of the current political arena.
Oliver Twist, adapted by British playwright Neil Bartlett in 2004, is based on Charles Dickens’ 1863 novel. Dickens used his own experiences working in a shoe-polish factory after his family was thrown in debtor’s prison to bring attention to the sordid conditions of the time.
Not to be confused with the musical and movie, Oliver, the play casts 12 actors playing multiple roles and includes Victorian era music performed by the actors on stage. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production runs through October 7.
Orphaned at birth, Oliver is sent to the workhouse, where he tussles with the other boys for the meager rations of gruel. The famous line, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” causes the magistrates to offer five pounds sterling if someone would take him on as an apprentice. He becomes an assistant to an undertaker, only to be tossed out to the streets. He meets the Artful Dodger, who brings Oliver to Fagan’s Den where he joins the London underworld of pickpockets. He robs an upper class gentleman, who turns out to be his grandfather. Oliver Twistdepicts Victorian England at its worst: child labor, squalor, prostitution and the inequalities of the British class system. Yet by saving Oliver, there’s hope that others too may escape the poverty that defines their existence.
Not so in Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. Two African-American brothers, ominously named Lincoln and Booth, grow up witnessing their parents’ marriage deteriorate, the subsequent departures of first their mother then father when they were teenagers, and being left to survive on their own. The older brother, having been a star in the street con game, three-card monte, tries to make an honest living. He dresses as Abe Lincoln, donning a top hat and fake beard to work in an arcade, where patrons can try to shoot him. Booth, skilled at “boosting” or stealing whatever he needs, desires the success and reputation his brother had as a card shark but lacks the physical dexterity and mental agility. They fight. They swear a lot. They seemed locked in without any escape. Lincoln loses his job—he’s replaced by a manikin- and returns to street hustling. Booth shoots and kills him; the play ends.
With friends after, we talked about how the play is so dark and offers no hope. I wondered what motivated Parks to write the play, which won her the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the first African -American woman to do so.
Thinking about the two brothers, played by real-life brothers, Brandon J. and Jason Dirden in Red Bank, NJ’s Two River Theater production, we debated what defines a civilized society. It’s not material wealth as much as how people are treated. It’s not about providing more for those able to help themselves, but about helping those who can’t.
John Dias, the theater’s artistic director, writes in the show’s program: “You’d be right to think that Suzan-Lori wants you to remember your American history while watching her play: the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, Honest Abe, and slavery.”
Coincidentally, an op-ed “I was a Welfare Mother” in Sunday’s New York Times described how for one woman, “…applying for government benefits was a way of taking responsibility for myself and my son during a difficult time in our lives.”
Had Parks’ doomed brothers had some assistance, perhaps their lives would have been different. Like Dickens’ Oliver Twist, her brothers were shunned by society, destined to fend for themselves.
Dickens, who died in 1870, chronicled what he saw everyday in England, drawing attention to injustice. Lincoln, who was assassinated in 1865, was attempting to heal a post-Civil War nation, summoning the mission of the Founding Fathers.
Maybe Parks’ play is a cautionary tale.