Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, is a multilayered look at the public and personal lives of Civil War-era slaves in their battles to serve each other and their “master.” Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, the engrossing three-act play waxes and wanes between the philosophical and playful, serious and humorous reality faced by African Americans caught in the conflagration and uncertainty of the age.
Parks’ nearly three-hour dramedy explores moral dilemmas the slaves themselves sometimes encountered. Father Comes Home deftly looked at culpability for wrongs inflicted on slaves by their masters and on the slaves by each other.
Parks bases some Father Comes Home character names on the classic tales about Greek warriors by Homer in an accessible, contemporary way. The lead character is named Hero and later renamed Ulysses (portrayed in L.A. by Sterling K. Brown, who starred in the original 2014 production at NYC’s Public Theater). The female lead is called Penny (played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), a modern version of Penelope. Another slave who serves as a catalyst for some of Hero’s soulful struggle is named Homer (Larry Powell). Lastly, Hero’s dog is named Odyssey. While the names may be borrowed, this play is set in 1862-3 Texas and is more of a personal tale that explores new aspects of American slavery.
In Part 1, A Measure of a Man, Hero considers the invitation to join his master, the Colonel (Michael KcKean), to fight in the Civil War – for the Confederacy – on the promise that his master will set him free afterwards. Hero himself feels torn between self-interest and furthering the cause he would be supporting. “I will be helping out on the wrong side,” he says grimly. “That sticks in my throat. … The wrong of it.”
Hero weighs all sides of the issue with his fellow slaves and his love, Penny. When it appears he will stay home, one slave comments, “Instead of picking a field of battle, he’s going to be picking a field of cotton,” and the others talk of the beating they will all be punished with as a result.
There is also reason to believe the Colonel will double cross Hero; he has before. Hero acknowledges being torn between wanting the master to die so he can flee and wanting him to give him freedom. In the end, Hero heads off to the war.
Part 2, A Battle in the Wilderness, finds Hero and his master separated from their regiment. They have made camp and are holding a captured Union soldier, Smith (played by Josh Wingate), in a makeshift cage.The colonel taunts Smith about slaveholding, sure that the Northerner must secretly want one. Smith staunchly maintains that he never wanted to own a slave. They discuss how much Hero sold for originally and would be worth now. The Colonel stops being so arrogant and expresses his fear that, if forced to free Hero, he will miss him as much as his now-deceased son. Regaining his composure, he boasts, “I take comfort that I will always be white.”
When the Colonel sets off to locate nearby troops, Hero and Smith discuss freedom. Hero expresses ambivalence about what his life will be worth is he no longer can command a price. “Seems like the worth of a colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave,” he says.
Part 3, The Union of My Confederate Parts takes place back on the Texas farm, where Homer and Penny still live but most of the other slaves have died or fled. They are hiding a group of runaway slaves and contemplating heading out with them. Penny is torn between waiting faithfully for Hero and leaving with the man she claims to not have been unfaithful with, Homer. There are some inconsistencies in this part, but they do not distract from the impact.
The tone of Father Comes Home shifts with the appearance of Hero’s dog, Odyssey (offered up as comic relief by Patrena Murray). The “animal” fills the group in on events that took place offstage in the war, including the master’s death. Faced with the clear connection between Penny and Homer, things do not go well for any of them and Hero, who renamed himself Ulysses (like General Grant) never gets around to telling them about the Emancipation Proclamation. All the now-former slaves except Hero take off for the North, thinking they need to escape. At the end, Ulysses sits alone with Odyssey facing an uncertain future and, as a symbolic first act as a free man, burying the master.
Brown is stellar conveying dignity, guilt and heartbreak in his Father Comes Home role. McKean shows emotion in between all the pomposity as the Colonel struts around. Wingate is pitiful and stoic as the captured Union soldier and Roger Robinson, who plays a wise old slave, adds greatly to Part 1. Lastly, Murray is entertaining in her antics and story-telling.
The evening also features bluesy songs, well played by Steven Bargonetti at the side of the stage, that add atmosphere and dimension. The Father Comes Home tunes, written by Parks, are woven in between and at times worked into the personal and public battles shown in Father Comes Home From the Wars. The play will be at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through May 15.
Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) Performance Apr. 17
Center Theatre Group: Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Los Angeles Times: Suzan-Lori Parks stages the fight for freedom in her new Civil War-set play
Photo of (L-R, top) Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate and photo of Patrena Murray as Odyssey with Brown in Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group