Thursday, November 27, 2014

'Father Comes Home From The Wars': A Masterful New Work Gets A First-Class Production At The Public Theater

The biggest, most cutting truth in the Public Theater’s first-rate production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s terrific Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III comes out of the mouth of a stereotypically nasty and oafish slave owner during the Civil War era. 

Speaking of the plight of blacks in America, whether slave or free, the character identified as The Colonel (aka “Boss Master”) proclaims, “I am grateful every day that God made me white. The lowly ones will always be lowly no matter how high they climb.” How swiftly this remark propels us out of the nineteenth century and into the present day, where public displays of imbedded racism extend all the way to the often contemptuous and condescending treatment of the current President of the United States, someone who certainly fulfills the description of a black man who has climbed high. 

Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III is smart like that, full of unexpected turns and well-placed dialog that are both true to the context and that flash forward through implication to the years and decades ahead. It is most significant that the play concludes with a reference to President Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation, which, while a meaningful gesture, was an unenforceable placeholder until the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution three years after the trilogy of plays ends. 

The proclamation by the Union’s President certainly provides no relief for the slaves under Boss Master’s yoke—not for Homer (Jeremie Harris), whose foot was cut off as punishment for attempting to run away, nor for Hero (Sterling K. Brown), who is under the gun to follow Boss Master, a Confederate colonel, into war in support of a cause he knows to be wrong.  Part I, titled A Measure Of A Man, deals with the painful decision-making process in the pre-dawn hours, during which Hero is advised by various of his fellow slaves (some of whom have placed wagers on the outcome) to stay, to go, or to run away. In the end, allowing himself to believe a promise of future freedom in exchange for current service, he dons the raggedy gray uniform Boss Master has given him and heads off, leaving Penny (Jenny Jules), his almost-wife—slaves were not allowed to marry—behind in Homer’s care.    

In Part II, A Battle In The Wilderness, The Colonel (Ken Marks) and Hero have wandered away from their regiment and the fighting, and are encamped in a clearing some miles from the battleground. By a stroke of luck, they have captured a Union officer (played with great humanity by Louis Cancelmi), so that they now can return in triumph rather than under suspicion of desertion. It is here, in conversation with the officer and Hero, that The Colonel offers up his views on race, including the idea that freedom isn’t all it’s cut out to be. A slave, at least, knows his worth, but what is the worth of a free black man? When he moves on ahead, expecting Hero to clean up the campsite and follow with their captive in tow, Hero finds the inner strength to set the prisoner free, though he himself refuses to flee with him; for Hero, freedom can only come as a gift from his master.   

Part III, The Union Of My Confederate Parts, brings things to a close (at least for now; Ms. Parks has plans for six more plays in the series). Boss Master is dead and Hero, now calling himself Ulysses—after General Grant, though mythic references abound throughout the plays—has returned safely home. But there is no happy ending for him. The other slaves have died or escaped, and he alone will remain behind, tethered to his master’s broken promise, with only a copy of Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom in his pocket. We know that the day of freedom will come for Ulysses, but what that will mean for him is clouded with uncertainty. 

With Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III, Ms. Parks has pulled off a triumphant feat of mixing the mythic with the mundane, and serious content with wonderful touches of humor (her great creation here is Odyssey, Hero’s talking dog, portrayed with boundless energy and great fun by Jacob Ming-Trent). The characters are complex, even Boss Master, who is struggling to maintain his footing in a world that is beginning to shift under his feet. By balancing all of these elements, the playwright succeeds in a way that few who have dealt with historic themes have been able to do without coming off as pedantic or getting helplessly lost in the storytelling.  August Wilson comes to mind as someone who has been able to triumph in dramatizing history, with his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle. Ms. Parks has promised nine plays in her cycle, and it is not hard to imagine her decision to stop at nine as her respectful tribute to Mr. Wilson. 

As if writing the play were not enough, Ms. Parks has also written a number of songs and incidental music that are performed throughout the evening. Steven Bargonetti is responsible for the arrangements and does a splendid of performing some of the numbers, in a way that brings to mind Taj Mahal’s work in the movie Sounder. 

Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts I, II, and III is a triumph for all concerned. Director Jo Bonney keeps the action flowing seamlessly through the three works (running time, including one intermission, is two hours and 50 minutes), well supported by Neil Patel’s set design, Esosa’s costumes, Lap Chi Chu’s atmospheric lighting, and a wonderfully talented ensemble of actors. I look forward with eagerness to the next installment.

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