A Black Man's Civil War Saga Is Seen Through An Epic Lens In 'Father Comes Home From The Wars'
by Jay Barmann
Slavery ranks high among the national traumas that continue to cast shadows on both our culture and our politics. But what of the slaves who could not quite imagine freedom, or who had no sense of identity or worth beyond serving their masters? That is the central question asked in the first three parts of Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, and 3, which just opened at ACT in a co-production with Yale Rep. And far from siding with Kanye West in his reductive and ignorant supposition that slavery was "a choice," Parks is keen to look at the Civil War and its aftermath through a dual lens that accounts for both the rebels and runaways as well as the loyal workers who stayed put -- those born into slavery who did, when given the choice, decide that their place was still on the plantation, rather than venturing off toward an unknown "freed" future, maybe in a city, up north.
The play centers on Hero (James Udom), whom Parks has fashioned after Odysseus and to whom she gives a Homeric and poetic structure: Hero goes off to war leaving behind his love, Penny (short for Penelope, played by Eboni Flowers), who longingly waits for his return. In this case, the war is the Civil War, and Hero's opportunity to fight comes via his "boss master" The Colonel, who's asked Hero to come fight alongside him for the Confederacy in exchange for his freedom. Part 1, or Act 1 in this case (Parks has said she plans to write a nine-play cycle, though she has not begun work on the latter six parts, and so Parts 1 through 3 function as a single, three-hour play for now), begins with a Greek chorus of slaves who are wondering aloud, and placing bets, as to whether Hero will decide to go off to war fighting for the wrong side, or whether he plans to stay behind with Penny. They all agree he is a loyal and dependable man, but to whom do his deepest loyalties lie?
This first part, as it stands, is the weakest and slowest moving of the three, despite moments of lovely lyricism, though it may be that Parks feels she needs to take her time in this epic mode setting the stage for what will be a centuries-spanning piece of literature. The problem is that when settling in for a three-hour epic, it can try the patience of the audience hearing character after character repeat the same phrases, jazz-like, and hold up the same questions to examine them from each and every angle before any action takes place. To her credit, Parks has employed a musician, with a guitar, to assist the chorus and to bookend the scenes with mood-setting songs.
We are also introduced to Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), a fellow slave whom Hero once betrayed, reporting him to their master when he tried to escape, which resulted in Homer having his foot cut off. Now a broken man and unable to run again, he's understandably bitter and is one of the only voices eager to see Hero disappear.
Part 2 takes us near one of the fronts in the war where Hero is camped with the Colonel (Dan Hiatt) as well as a prisoner the Colonel has taken, a white Union soldier who claims to have been a captain of an all-black regimen out of Kansas. The prisoner gets Hero alone and the two explore the question of a man's worth after the Colonel reveals that he bought Hero for $800 -- if Hero were to escape and become free, would he still be worth so much? How do we even assign worth to free people?
It's in Part 3 that Parks seems to really find her rhythm, employing the first "magical" element in her myth-making by introducing Hero's often-mentioned dog, Odd-See, played by an actor in a fuzzy coat (the delightful Gregory Wallace), but otherwise without dog ears or tail. We are also introduced to three runaway slaves who are taking shelter on this plantation with Penny and Homer -- who by now have become lovers, by default -- and who represent the migration of black people out of the south at the end of the war.
Odd-See, comically and breathlessly with a dog's eagerness, tells the story of the close of the war, and the death of The Colonel. This leaves Penny and Homer to assume that Hero is dead as well, but, like Odysseus, he shows up alive, only he brings more disappointment and sorrow back with him than she imagines.
The comedy and tidying up of Parks's story threads make for some terrific theater in this final act, but I'm hard-pressed to say I had an easy time getting there -- and I noted a number of empty seats near me in the theater after the intermission that separated Parts 2 and 3, suggesting I wasn't the only one who felt exhausted. I say this having happily sat through the two parts and seven hours of Angels in America last week at Berkeley Rep, and therefore it feels like an issue of pacing and the indulgent, circular riffing of Part 1, followed by the relatively small amount of movement in Part 2. This is a play that rewards the patient, much as most epic pieces do -- even though the rewards are quite bittersweet. And knowing that Parks intends to take an inter-generational tale into the 20th Century, the two ancestral threads we see take shape at the end of Part 3, Hero's and Homer's, as Homer decides to take off north with the runaways and Hero stays put on familiar ground, assume greater weight. Given Parks's pedigree, though, as a MacArthur fellow and Pulitzer Prize winner, I can't help but wonder if she found less pressure among her collaborators to tighten and edit the text (a rave review for the off-Broadway premiere in 2014 in the New York Times nonetheless notes the same issues I saw with Part 1).
The direction by Liz Diamond is too precious with the language, at turns, but feels appropriate in its frequent, theatrical tableaux. And the spare set by designer Riccardo Hernandez adds to a sense of bleakness in the first two parts, punctuated, curiously, by several imitation steel I-beams -- presaging the Industrial Revolution? I don't get it.
"All we know is the sun's gonna rise, God willing," says one of the slaves in the opening lines of Act 1. And indeed we know very little about where these characters may end up right up until the final moments of the piece. All we do know is that they feel like they're just small pieces in a much larger tale.
'Father Comes Home From the Wars' plays at ACT through May 20. Find tickets here.