A CurtainUp Review
Father Comes Home From The Wars (parts 1, 2 & 3
By Elyse Sommer
The war being dramatized is The Civil War, one of the bloodiest and most decisive chapters in America's history. Father Comes Home. . . progresses over less than two years — from early spring 1862 to late fall 1863. But what's at stake here is not whether the South or the North prevails as much as the choices made by one individual who happens to be a slave, and how those choices affect those close to him. What we have is not so much a slice of war story as an imaginative, multi-faceted narrative that touches on the many meanings of trustworthiness and integrity. With its crucial decision maker named Hero, and others Penny and Homer, it's also a savvy spin on the Odyssey myth.
The three parts flow into each other, with the scene transitions enlivened with blues-y songs composed by Ms. Parks and performed by guitarist Steven Bargonetti. Part 1 establishes the overall situation of the war's calling the men in states allied to the Confederacy's cause to take up arms. In this case, the war-bound warrior is the owner of a West Texas plantation. While we hear about him and his wife, the characters we meet are their slaves. The action revolves around the question of whether Hero (Sterling Brown, in a performance true to his first name), the Boss-Master's right-hand man and the play's central character, will accompany him into battle.
For several of the men listed in the program as "The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, Hero's decision boils down to a bet. Being possession-less, the only chips these gamblers have are a spoon and a pair of shoes.
Penny (a fiercely passionate Jenny Jules), Hero's beloved sees his choosing to go as desertion. Hero's nominal father, the Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez, convincingly frail and aged in a role reminiscent of some of August Wilson's characters) is willing for him to go, especially since the master has promised to free him as a reward for his service.
Homer (a superbly nuanced Jeremie Harris), who has experienced slavery at its worst as a result of a failed runaway effort, sees Hero's choices as a damned if you do and damned if you don't proposition. Not trusting the master to make good on either his promise of freedom or his assurance that no one will be punished if Hero opts against accompanying him, Homer proposes a grim but necessary alternative to avoid having to make a choice.
At any rate, the excellent performances keep the Colonel's villainous behavior and his interaction with a captured Yankee army captain named Smith (a fine Louis Cancelmi) all too believable. The same is true for Part 3 in which Hero returns home for an at once joyous and devastating reunion with those he left behind.
There's one other character, mentioned in the first part who (shades of the portentous gun in Chekhov's plays) disappears in the Part 1 and reappears in the last. I'll admit I'm not fond of adult actors playing children or actors of any age playing talking dogs. However, Jacob Ming-Trent's aptly named Odyssey Dog does add a needed bit of humor and turns out to be a meaningful commentator on his master's moral dilemma.
Under Jo Bonney's steady-handed direction there isn't a dull moment in the three hours which include one break before the final "The Union of my Confederate Parts."
Neil Patel's woodsy scenery features the front of a slave cabin that rises for the the battle scene which includes a cage made of sticks for the Union prisoner. The cabin drops down again for the finale. An upstage walkway creates a sense of the overall property. Esosa's grey, black and rust hued costumes complement the scenic design.
As the daughter of a career military man, Ms. Parks saw her father return from wars right through Vietnam. Being told he had gone off to fight for freedom led her to seek a dramatic way to make sense of the freedoms men fight for and how those fights affect all those caught up in them. In this, the first of a continuing cycle, Parks' story pivots around an ironically named slave whose decision to accept a risky offer of freedom has unintended consequences for others as well as himself.
Beautifully crafted in every respect as the current production is, it's hard to say if it has Broadway transfer potential, so don't miss the chance to see it before this all too brief run ends. With the playwright already filled with ideas for the plays which will take this initial triptych into the present, maybe the Public Theater can make plans for one of those all day marathons that theater goers seem to love. I hope so.
Links to other work by Suzan-Lori Parks reviewed at Curtainup: Top/Dog Underdog
In the Blood
Book of Grace
Book for musical, Ray Charles Live
Book for Porgy & Bess