December 3, 2014

"Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3" is WhollyOriginal—And Truly Important

The sesquicentennial of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, ends in just four months but observances of the anniversary have been surprisingly quiet. Which is just one of the many reasons that I am so glad to have seen Suzan-Lori Parks’ appropriately lauded Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3. It also explains why I am writing about it even though the show’s extended run closes at the Public Theater this weekend. (I'll announce the CD Giveaway winner on Saturday.)

I’d seen a workshop production of three of the plays in Parks’ projected nine-part saga back in 2009 but that sampling lasted just an hour, while the current version runs about three.  But the plays continue to center around a slave named Hero, the love of his life Penny and Hero’s best friend and rival for Penny’s affections, Homer. 

The first, and least interesting, of the three parts kicks off as the slaves at a southern planation (Parks calls them The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves) bicker over whether Hero will accept an offer from their master to go off with him to fight for the Confederacy in exchange for a promise of freedom when the war is over.

As the narrative requires, Hero goes. And the second part picks up some time later when he and his master have captured a wounded Union officer whom they believe to be the white commander of a regiment of free black soldiers. The final segment involves Hero’s troubled homecoming to the plantation. All three segments are linked by ballads written by Parks and sung by the soulful singer Steven Bargonetti.

The allusions to the Odyssey are intentional but, like Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ An Octoroon (click here for my review of it) Father Comes Home From the Wars is a brazenly post-modern work that seeks to debunk the long-held myths about that painful period of American history and about race relations in general. 

Parks mashes up comedy and tragedy, high culture (lyrical language) and low (street talk) traditional storytelling (a Greek-style chorus) and magical realism (a talking dog) to create a truly original take on slavery that should make everyone sit up and pay attention, no matter on which side of the racial or political divide they fall (click here to read more about how she put it all together).

I saw and respected last year’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” but found it to be so relentless in its depiction of the brutality of slavery that I tuned out, unable to absorb it all (and I imagine it also allowed some folks to cop out with the excuse that no masters could be that bad).  By contrast, the one minute of unexpected and inexpiable cruelty in the second section of Father Comes Home From the Wars made me gasp out loud.

That second section, which is called “A Battle in the Wilderness,” may be the best thing that Parks, a MacArthur genius and Pulitzer Prize winner for Topdog/Underdog, has ever written—or that has ever grappled with the subject of race on an American stage.

But the entire production is terrific, benefitting from Jo Bonney’s elegant and affective direction and superb performances, lead by Sterling K. Brown as Hero and the scene-stealing Jacob Ming-Trent as his faithful dog and oracle who is listed in the Playbill as Odyssey Dog but whom the slaves more aptly call Odd-See.  I know it sounds silly but both the character and the performance are sublime. 

We all know that slavery was awful.  Over the years, we've learned that emancipation, while welcomed, wasn’t easy. And as the muted approach to the war’s anniversary (not to mention the aftermath of the Ferguson decision) suggests, this country is still struggling with the legacies of both. But Parks’ plays are blazing a different path. And as I tweeted when I got home from seeing them this past weekend, I wish I could have binged watched the remaining six plays in her ennead.

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