Sometimes a piece of theater comes along that is very close to perfect. “Father Comes Home From The War” is just such a play for me. Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Genius awards winner Suzan-Lori Parks has once again proven she is the real thing. She deftly combines complex moral issues with humor and even touches of music that enhance rather than advance the story. Her story telling takes almost three hours, but does not feel a moment too long. The music sets the action squarely in the South.
Part 1: A Measure of a Man, gives us the mise en scene. The time is Early Spring 1862. A tidy but poor slave cabin, a wistful guitar with Steven Bargonetti playing and singing material that was written by the playwright herself. A group of slaves are setting around taking bets as to whether or not young Hero (Sterling K. Brown) will follow his master to war on the promise of freedom after if he does. There is a bad omen. Hero’s lucky dog has run off. His wife, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) does not want him to go to war. His putative father, The Oldest Old Man (Roger Robinson), supports Hero’s call to arms. Homer (Larry Powell) once made a break for freedom and the master had his foot chopped off to teach him a lesson; he wants Hero to escape on his own. These are real people with the strengths and weaknesses that real people have. Hero is torn in different directions. He is not a decisive man. Our empathy for them as slaves takes the upper hand, but we can see their foibles and feet of clay.
Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness, takes place in the forest. Hero has succumbed to his Master’s promise and followed the Colonel (Michael McKean) into the war, running along with the Colonel whom he has helped onto his horse. The horse was shot out from under the Colonel. There never was a horse for Hero. A Union soldier (Josh Wingate), with a wounded leg, is in a cage made of twigs. The Colonel taunts: “thank God I am white,” but shows no mercy to either Hero or the defender of the Union. Hero still obeys the Colonel, fueled by the promise of freedom. The Colonel tries to seduce the Union soldier to the allure of owning another. Cannon fire is drawing ever closer. Hero and the soldier share a few private moments while the Colonel looks to gage the battle. Hero muses, “who are you if you’re not a slave?” It is a question that floats over the tale. If you think about it, this is the question that often hovers if one thinks about leaving an intolerable life circumstance. There is so much concentration on escape that little thought is made to ‘what then?’ Sometimes it is more than can be conjured.
Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts, it is over a year later. A group of runaway slaves are on the plantation, waiting for dark so they can escape. They look to Homer to show them the way. Penny has been working in the big house and overhears that the master is dead. She understands that Hero is too. She is devastated. With the allure of Hero’s absence Homer’s love for Penny has flourished and he has new reason to hope. Life goes on. Now he definitely is not a good candidate for leading the group away unless Penny will follow.
In a stroke of creative genius Parks has Odyssey, the dog, (Patrena Murray) run into the enclave, excited to tell all that Hero is returning. It is impossible to describe effectively. It is funny, it is charming, it is foreboding, but it does not undermine the strength of the story. Murray is enchanting, peeing on every stump, slurping, needing a tummy rub, and, at the same time, slowly and deliberately telling what has happened from a scruffy dog’s point of view.
All’s well that ends well. But it doesn’t quite; we do know there are more parts to come as Parks has announced that “Father Comes Home” is just the beginning of nine parts, no make that twelve parts, she has announced are in the works. Putting aside future chapters, “Father Comes Home” stands well enough on its own. You cannot help but notice the references and certain parallels to Homer’s Ulysses – but should it have escaped you, upon his return, Hero announces to Penny that he has given himself a new name: Ulysses. Much has been made of the references to the classic epic tale, but in the unlikely possibility that you have never heard of Ulysses, you would miss little as this saga stands on its own.
Both Director Jo Bonney and musician Steven Bargonetti are from the heralded New York production. It is a beautifully chosen cast. Park’s words often rise to poetry, yet they never seem pretentious or stilted. Hero’s phrase when he speaks of Penny, “There is perfume when she walks,” captures what it feels like to be in love. I would also say, there is perfume when Parks writes. Don’t miss it.