By Patrick Hurley
A lyrical theatrical odyssey is beautifully pieced together by Suzan-Lori Parks in her epic new play Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1,2 &3). Blending Homeric allusions, meta-theatricality, and Parks’ incomparable gift of language, Father is the first three parts of a proposed nine-part series that will deal with the African-American experience during wartime in American history.
The first three parts take place during the Civil War and centers on Hero (Sterling K. Brown), a slave whose master, known as the Colonel (Michael McKean) has promised him his freedom in exchange for fighting along side him in the war. In part one, Hero is faced with the decision of whether or not he will join the Colonel, or stay behind with the love of his life, his wife Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris). Alongside a group of fellow slaves, Penny and Hero must come to terms with the illusion of options and the reality of obstacles, both in their past, and in the way of their future.
In part two, Hero and the Colonel are returning to their regiment with a Union prisoner, a man called Smith (Josh Wingate), we catch up with the trio at a campsite where Hero and Smith discover they have more in common than their lack of freedom. Part two is the most focused and taut of the three parts. The dialogue is as powerful as any Parks has ever written, and the last few moments are as evocative as theater can get.
Part three deals with Hero’s return. After changing his name to Ulysses, and perhaps discovering the price of freedom, he is a changed man. And while Penny may have waited for him, the man that returned may not be the man she fell in love with. And the illusion versus reality that was established in part one comes to fruition.
This ambitious, yet exquisitely intimate play balances all the weight of its subject with a tenacious ability to carry symbolism and allusion along the way. The themes of love, freedom, and identity are poetically layered throughout without any moments of didactic sermonizing. Director Jo Bonney allows the text to breathe. She allows the actors to explore, and the piece moves unflinchingly forward. And while the action can sometimes halt to make way for the elegiac dialogue, there are moments of pure theatrical bliss at work here.
The costumes, designed by ESosa, are a mix of period with contemporary. Hero and Penny are decked in Civil War era attire, while the other slaves are wearing Converse and more modern, specifically urban clothing. Perhaps to bring a bit of the now into the narrative. There is an easy “in” to the story here, and the lens through which this story is being told is very much a contemporary, African-American one. This is not a dated story about the injustices of slavery, this is a modern day interpretation of the sacrifices of love, the pain of regret, and the cost of freedom. This is a reminder of what it means to be free. To be allowed to express that freedom, and to interpret and tell your own story. Like Odysseus, Hero is on as much of a metaphorical self journey as he is an actual one. With each new experience, he is changing who he is and how he sees the world around him. And this might ring true of Parks herself. This is an exploration of form and language. She has written something that feels immediate and alive. A challenge to be sure, and the cast is more than up to her challenge.
Sterling K. Brown is astonishing as Hero/Ulysses. He holds so much of Hero’s pain behind a wall of bravado and stoicism that when we see through the cracks, it elicits tremendous feeling. It takes a very special actor to be able to humanize this larger-than-life, almost mythical figure, and he does so here with such earnest sincerity that it is truly a tour de force.
This entire production is an exciting reminder of the power of live theater. Suzan-Lori Parks has created a big, bold accessible world and Director Jo Bonney has populated that world with incredible actors. It is a potent and wonderful statement on the state of current day theater. It is alive and well and should not be missed.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1,2,&3)
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed By Jo Bonney
Through May 15
The Mark Taper Forum
135 N. Grand 90012.
(213) 628-2772 or online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Tickets range from $25 – $85 (ticket prices are subject to change).