'Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)': Theater Review

Courtesy of The Public Theater
Sterling K. Brown and Louis Cancelmi in "Father Comes Home From the Wars"
Bring on the full marathon

Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks revisits the American Civil War in this stunning Homeric trilogy, which begins a sprawling nine-part historical cycle

In her breakthrough play, Topdog/Underdog, Suzan-Lori Parks spun the Biblical Cain and Abel story into a reflection on the existential balancing act of the African-American male. In her brilliant, beautiful Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), which is the playwright's most accessible work since that 2002 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, she fashions a bracing Homeric odyssey out of the journey from slavery to emancipation.

If that sounds like a scholarly exercise, it's exactly the opposite. With this vibrant freestanding trilogy, part of an ongoing nine-part historical cycle that will jump forward from the American Civil War to the present, Parks has achieved something that engages with a bold theatricality both lyrical and raw, without sacrificing any of her thematic ambition or her structural and intellectual complexity. Each of the three parts thrums with its own vitality, but consumed together in director Jo Bonney's outstandingly acted production, they form a mutually invigorating whole.

Parks' incomparable command of percussive vernacular is no surprise, and her dialogue here might just as easily be sung. This haunting work is funny and tragic, whimsical and lacerating, poetic and poignant, navigating its radical tonal shifts with fluidity and grace. The trilogy also manages, with stylized language, wit and economy of design, to plug historical experience directly into the socket of contemporary life.

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The three parts are punctuated by bluesy ditties, written by Parks and arranged and performed on guitar by the lanky balladeer Steven Bargonetti. The hour-long first chapter, titled A Measure of a Man, takes place in spring 1862, on a modest Far West Texas plantation, which designer Neil Patel represents using nothing more than a tree stump and a small slave cabin. With its talky inaction and sing-songy use of repetition, this is the most challenging part of the trilogy. But it's essential as a setup to Parks' densely layered themes exploring the duality of individual versus interdependent struggle, the bonds forged under oppression as well as the tentative dreams, and the blurred lines between ownership and a confused sense of belonging.

The key question being tossed about and wagered over by the amusingly named "Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves" is whether the able-bodied Hero (Sterling K. Brown) will follow the Boss-Master off to war. Hero has ostensibly been given a choice, with the promise of freedom should he elect to go, even if that means fighting against his own cause. But the Boss-Master has dangled freedom and reneged once before.

Hero's inseparable dog and lucky mascot, Odd-See, has gone missing, which seems a bad sign, and the slave sways back and forth on his decision, contemplating self-injury as an alternative. Advice comes from his woman Penny (Jenny Jules), from his surrogate father, the Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez), and from Homer (Jeremie Harris), whose foot Hero was forced by the Boss-Master to chop off after he tried to run away. All the slaves anticipate being whipped should Hero choose to stay.

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In the trilogy's knockout centerpiece, A Battle in the Wilderness, we meet the Boss-Master (Ken Marks), now a Colonel in the Rebel Army lost somewhere in the South. He has captured a wounded Union soldier named Smith (Louis Cancelmi), serving with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. Together with Hero, they sweat out the approach of both Yankee troops and Rebels. The Colonel attempts to cajole Smith into confessing a yen to own slaves, while Smith taunts his captor about the tenuousness of his power. The prisoner takes advantage of the Colonel's brief absence to get inside Hero's head.

Roughly 45 minutes in length and with barely an extraneous word, Part 2 is a riveting consideration of the ways in which a man's worth is valued, from the preening self-importance of the Colonel to the uncertainty of Hero, torn between cowed submission and resentment.

Bonney's direction is flawless, with each of the three actors displaying realms of thought and feeling beneath what's spoken. Cancelmi's crazy-eyed trapped animal is also watchful and calculating, revealing great depths of humanity as we learn more about his character. And Marks segues hilariously from a tender display of paternal affection for Hero into a tearful prayer of thanks for his own perceived racial superiority. The scene is Parks at her best, mordant and merciless, and yet never veering into an easy caricature of Southern bigotry.

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The closing chapter, The Union of My Confederate Parts, returns to the plantation, where Homer and Penny are sheltering three runaway slaves (Russell G. JonesTonye PatanoJulian Rozzell Jr.) for the night. Valuing Homer's ability to read the land and sky, the fugitives want him to go with them on their journey. But Homer is unwilling to leave Penny, whose dreams are still haunted by Hero. The return of Odd-See (Jacob Ming-Trent in an inspired comic performance), the talking dog, sheds light on events in the year and a half since Hero and the Boss-Master left. But freedom remains an abstract notion that's hard to tame, and in the developments that follow, the milestone of the emancipation proclamation becomes an afterthought.

Audiences familiar with The Odyssey will enjoy parsing Parks' play for both its parallels and its freewheeling variations. But this is fertile material in its own right, exploring with infinite nuance questions of identity, truth and trust, of loyalty, betrayal and moral confusion.

There's not a weak link in the superb ensemble, but Fernandez's Old Man is a marvelous character portrait, while as two men negotiating the shifting ground between bonded friendship and rivalry, Brown and Harris are tremendous. When Hero gazes at his upturned palms, muttering in disbelief, "These are my hands now," the moment is shattering.

What's also remarkable is that unlike the lashes doled out in graphic detail in films like, say, 12 Years a Slave, there is just one brief instance of physical violence shown here. But Father Comes Home sings, in a language all its own, of the inextinguishable sorrow, indignation and spiritual resilience of America's history of human violation, and its contemporary legacy. If Parks can sustain her sprawling project at this level as it moves forward, there's every reason to hope it will ultimately become no less significant and emotionally resonant an undertaking than August Wilson's ten-play Century Cycle.

Cast: Sterling K. Brown, Louis Cancelmi, Peter Jay Fernandez, Jeremie Harris, Russell G. Jones, Jenny Jules, Ken Marks, Jacob Ming-Trent, Tonye Patano, Julian Rozzell Jr.

Director: Jo Bonney

Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks

Set designer: Neil Patel

Costume designer: ESosa

Lighting designer: Lap Chi Chu

Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier

Music director: Steven Bargonetti

Songs & additional music: Suzan-Lori Parks

Presented by the Public Theater, in association with American Repertory Theater

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