By: David Sheward
The prolific Suzan-Lori Parks who once wrote a 365-play project, continues her ambitious examination of American history and race with Father Comes Home from the Wars, a nine-play cycle stretching from the
Civil War to the present. The first three parts are on display in a nearly three-hour single bill at the Public Theater. While there is much heavy-handed symbolism and a few overly obvious references to the Odyssey, Father sets off many dramatic sparks and in the second of the three works, it really catches fire.
As she did in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog, Parks combines allegory and versimiltude to scrutinize the African-American experience. This cycle follows the slave Hero who leaves his wife Penny (read Penelope) to serve as valet to his despicable master in the Confederate Army in return for his freedom. Greek classic parallels continue with Hero changing his name to Ulysses (after General Grant) upon emancipation and his loyal dog named Odyssey (for "odd-a-see" because of crossed eyes), played by a human actor, accompanying him to war. There’s also Hero’s fellow slave Homer who longs to escape to the North but remains on the homestead because he loves Penny.
The first and third parts which take place at the master’s Texas plantation drip with significance as each character seems to speak in capital letters, often addressing the audience directly. There’s even a Greek chorus of slaves in Part 1 and runaways in Part 3. But the middle part, called "A Battle in the Wilderness," is the juicy, satisfying entrée of this three-course meal. Hero’s master, identified only as the Colonel, has captured a Yankee captain and the three of them are separated from regiments of other side. The captain encourages Hero to defy the Colonel and set both of them free, but Hero suddenly confronted with the possibility of being on his own, fears the changes such liberation would bring. "Who would I belong to?," he asks.
Questions of race, identity, responsibility, and morality are hotly debated as the Colonel sadistically toys with both his slave and his prisoner who has several unexpected secrets of his own. It’s a taut, three-sided boxing match staged with remarkable tension by Jo Bonney and fought with precision by Sterling K. Brown’s passionate and ambivalent Hero, Ken Marks’ sly and villainous Colonel, and Louis Cancelmi’s deceptively simplistic Colonel. Unfortuantely, the first and third plays lack the same punch.
But, the cast endows Parks’ sometimes pretentious sections with gritty realism and music director Steven Bargonetti performs tangy vocal and guitar accompaniment. Jacob Ming-Trent delivers a canine tour de force as Hero’s dog Odyssey relating their adventures, Jenny Jules is a compelling Penny and Jeremie Harris a noble Homer. Amidst the high-flying verbiage, Parks makes many sharp observations on the messy course of our country’s history. It will be interesting to see what she has to say in Parts 4 through 9.
Father Comes Home From The Wars ***
Oct. 28-Nov. 30. Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue.-Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 1:30 p.m. Running time: two hours and 50 mins. including intermission. $60-$65. (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.