Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
Review by Willard Manus
Suzan-Lori Parks much-acclaimed Civil War drama, FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (directed by Jo Bonney), has finally come to Los Angeles after productions in New York, New England and elsewhere. The play, which recently won the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, is a large, ambitious and ground-breaking work, one which focuses on a small group of slaves living on a modest plantation in Texas, circa 1862.
The key characters in Part 1 are The Oldest Old Man (Roger Robinson), Parks irreverent take on the stereotype of a wise old woolyhead; Penny (Sameerah Lugmaan-Harris), a beautiful young girl in love with Hero (Sterling K. Brown); and Homer (Larry Powell), a field slave who, in classic triangular fashion, is in love with Penny. Four other slaves fill out the picture; they are identified as a Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves and have names like Leader, Second, Third, etc. These anachronistic touches are reflected in Esosas costumes as well, a melange of raggedy period pants and skirts mixed with modern baseball shirts and sneakers. A folksinger (Steven Bargonetti) warbles away from time to time (bluesy lyrics by the playwright).
Obviously, this is not your typical slave tale, one which usually centers on a noble hero trying to lead his people to the promised land. The man played by Sterling K. Brown may be called Hero, but he is anything but noble. Charismatic, yes, but in a scurrilous kind of way: he once informed on his best friend Homer to win favor with the boss-man; and now, when the story opens, he is contemplating joining the Confederate army (as valet to the boss-man). The payoff for this betrayal of his own people is freedom for your service. Trouble is, as Homer points out, the boss-man made that promise to you before and went back on it. What Hero does for freedom, in fact, what all of the slaves do for it (once Emancipation comes in Part 3), is very much the central issue in the play. As Parks said in an interview, After freedom comes, what is the best use of yourself? It would be tempting to call FATHER a revamping of the Odyssey; there is a character called Homer; Hero is, in a way, a flawed Ulysses; and Penny is short for Penelope, pining for the return of her warrior-husband (dont forget the Greek chorus chirping away in the background, either. But Parks has her own African-American take on Ulysses, one which she uses to make the epic tale her own, especially when she adds such original touches as the character of the boss-man (Michael McKean)in Part 2. This vain, swaggering, drunken Confederate army officer has captured what he believes is a Union officer (Josh Wingate) and intends to deliver him to headquarters in return for a fat prize. While stomping around on the battlefield, he spouts his ludicrously racist views (Every day I thank God I was born white) to the prisoner and his servant. McKean almost steals the show with his bigoted buffoonery.
In Part 3, yet another comic character appears, Odyssey Dog (Patrena Murray), a mangy mutt belonging to Hero who proves to have a lot more humanity and smarts than her master does. Murray brings down the house with her inspired canine clowning. By turns hilarious and profound, whimsical and powerful, FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS is everything it was cracked up to beand more, much more.
(Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org)