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A CurtainUp London Review
Father Comes Home From the Wars
Outside a slave cabin, the Chorus of "Less Than Desirable Slaves" (Sibusiso Mamba, Jason Pennycooke, Sarah Niles and Dex Lee) discuss and take bets on whether Hero will follow his master to the war against the North. The scenes are introduced and closed by songs written by Ms Parks and evocatively sung by the American composer, guitarist, blues musician Steven Bargonetti. The issue for Hero is that he has been promised his freedom by his slave master if he will enlist on the Confederate side and fight against the Yankees who are intent on freeing all slaves.
Alongside Hero we meet his slave father figure "The Oldest Old Man", Leo Wringer unrecognisable with a waist length white beard and the long remains of his grizzled white hair, and his woman, Penny (a moving performance from Nadine Marshall). The most interesting tale for me to emerge from this first part is that of Homer (Jimmy Akinbola) whose perspective is that whether Hero stays to farm in the fields or goes to war with his slave master that these choices are not choices but, "Nothing more than the.same coin/ Flipped over and over/Two sides of the same coin/ And the coin ain't even in your pocket."
Homer's back story is that he and Hero were set to escape together but Hero decided not to go, Homer was rounded up and Hero obeyed orders to cut off Homer's foot ensuring no further escape attempts from Homer out of slavery. Hero's double betrayal of Homer is explained in that the master told Hero he would die if he didn't cut off Homer's foot. The brutality of this act is underlined when the foot is displayed on a pole as a grim reminder of what happened to one runaway.
In Part Two, Hero has gone to war and is found near the battlefields with the slave master now a Colonel in the Rebel army (John Stahl) and a Union prisoner Smith (Tom Bateman). The first part of this scene worked less well for me, maybe because so many of the attitudes that the Colonel expresses sit uncomfortably with today's values and human rights. They maybe also sat uncomfortably with John Stahl whose Southern accent wavered back to Scots on occasion. The result is a picture of a cruel oppressor and Hero as a man who follows him slavishly. The comparisons between the Colonel's own son and Hero are many but as soon as the colonel has made a speech about the loss he and his wife would feel without Hero, he says immediately, "I am grateful every day that God made me white." The second half of Part Two is about the connections Hero finds with the prisoner Smith who gives him the gift of a Union uniform and allows him a redemptive act which counters the Colonel's orders.
In Part Three, Hero who is not yet a father comes home to the song "Misplaced Myself" but first we learn from the Chorus of "The Runaway Slaves" that Penny has been wooed by Homer in Hero's absence but she still has feelings for Hero. Odysseus' dog (Dex Lee) narrates some of the events in a quirky and comic way but demonstrates the real meaning of faithfulness. Hero has brought his master's body back to the plantation to bury him and has now taken the name Ulysses rather than his slave name Hero. I won't anticipate the ending here but it isn't as tidy as the original Greek tale and doesn't present Ulysses in the best light but Homer has an interesting role after Penelope doesn't quite unravel all her weaving.
Designer Neil Patel's slave cabin looks authentic and the middle part is set in a believable wilderness with a cage fashioned from logs. Emilio Sosa gives the colonel an over the top vanity plume but the Runaway Chorus were too recognisable as the Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves. Steve Bargonetti's rendition of the songs is atmospheric and perfect with both banjo and guitar.
Suzan-Lori Parks' play reads well on the page and is poetic and dramatic with frequent use of more modern language. I didn't feel the production was ideal despite bringing Jo Bonney, the American Public Theater director with it to the Royal Court. Maybe the southern accents needed concentration and unless the accent is sound, the acting may be hampered especially when delivering poetry. But like so many projects it is unfair to judge a nine part marathon on the opening third.
As a study of a flawed hero, a man imbued with identifying with his white slavemaster it works and can only lay the foundations for the dramatic future and today's inheritance of racial unrest.
For Elyse Sommer review of the New York production in 2014 go here.
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Father Comes Home From the Wars
Part 1: A Measure of a Man, Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness, Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jo Bonney
Starring: Jimmy Akinbola, Steve Toussaint, Nadine Marshall, John Stahl, Tom Bateman, Leo Wringer
With: Dex Lee, Sibusiso Mamba, Jason Pennycooke
Set Designed by Neil Patel
Costume design by Emilio Sosa
Sound Design: David McSeveney
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Songs and Additional Music: Suzan-Lori Parks
Musical Director, Arranger and Performer: Steven Bargonetti
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 22nd October 2016
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 22nd September 2016 performance at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London SW1W 8AS (Tube: Sloane Square)
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