June 27, 2009

A Salute for "Father Comes Home From the Wars"

Suzan-Lori Parks is that rare, real deal: a playwright with a dazzlingly original voice. And she has the trophies to prove it. There are a couple of Obies and a Tony nomination, not to mention a Guggen- heim Fellowship, a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant and a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 play Topdog/Underdog. And this past Tuesday, she got recognition of an even more rarefied sort. Sitting side-by-side in the back row of the tiny Shiva Theater at The Public Theater were the equally big-deal playwrights John Guare, Tony Kushner, Sam Shepard and the performance artist Reno. They had all turned out to see Father Comes Home From the Wars, the ambitious work-in-progress that Parks has been workshopping under the auspices of the Public’s Lab series.

Parks, the daughter of a career military man, says the play was inspired by childhood memories of her father’s homecomings from his tours of duty in Vietnam and other war zones. She says she envisions the work as a nine-part piece and already has drafts, in various stages, of all nine.

Although Father Comes Home has been running since June 5 and is scheduled to close on Sunday, I haven’t been able to find any reviews. That may be because the play is still constantly changing, making any criticism outdated before it’s even published.

The Lab production was to offer Part 1 (The Union of My Confederate Parts) Part 8 ( The Way We Live Now) and Part 9 (In Between The Wars) but before the evening began we were told we’d only see Parts One and Eight, which would be performed simultaneously, with the latter presented on the two video screens that flanked the small stage. The whole thing lasted just under an hour. But what we got to see was fascinating and made me eager for more.

Some parts of Parks' projected nonet will take place in the present but The Union of My Confederate Parts is set in Texas, on June 19, 1865. That's the date, now celebrated as Juneteenth, that slaves in Texas finally got the news that they’d been set free by the Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln had signed over two years earlier.

This segment of the longer work is also a riff on the Odysseus myth, complete with a Greek chorus and characters named Homer, Penny and Hero. Its main narrative centers around a love triangle and its main theme focuses on the many definitions of loyalty. It's all underscored with blues songs, written and sung by the winsome Parks, who functions as the play’s narrator and remains on stage the whole time.

The Way We Live Now
, set in the present, doesn’t quite seem to exist yet. The images on the screens were mainly scenes of a long and deserted road.

I know it’s typical for actors to come and go over the course of readings and workshops during a play’s development but I hope this cast gets to stick with the show. During the talkback session after Tuesday night's performance, nearly all of them said they’d signed up without even seeing a script because they simply wanted to work with Parks. And you can feel that commitment in their performances.

They’re all terrific but the standouts are Seth Gilliam (most familiar to me for his role as Sgt. Carver on HBO’s “The Wire”) as Homer, a slave whose foot has been cut off because he tried to runaway; and Patrice Johnson (whose credits include playing Desdemona opposite Patrick Stewart’s Othello in the 1997 production that I am heartsick to have missed) as Penny, a slave woman torn between two men she loves.

But as good as Gilliam and Johnson are, I couldn’t help periodically turning my eyes to the side of the stage to sneak a peek at Parks. And she couldn’t take her eyes off the actors bringing her words to life. She quietly chuckled at their jokes as though she were hearing them for the first time and wiped away the tears they evoked in the play's moving conclusion.

After the 30-minute talkback, moderated by the Public’s Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Parks and the actors mingled with audience members, hugging friends (“Oh, my God. Oh my God,” Parks said as she recognized the denizens of the back row. “I’m so glad I didn’t know who was here before we did it tonight”) and accepting compliments from folks they didn’t know.

I never know what to do in situations like that. I always worry about imposing on the actors and I didn’t say anything. So let me say it now: Thank you. It was an evening I'll long remember.

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