ART's "Father Comes Home": From the Servile War

The Cast of "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/ART)

ART’s current production, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, parts 1, 2 & 3”, by Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer winner for “Topdog/Underdog”) is, by the playwright’s own admission a “mashup”. The first clue is the laid-back and low-key design scheme that visualizes her complex mix of the historical (the African-American experience since the Civil War) with the surreal and the magically real (a Greek chorus, mythological namings and literary allusions, grunge garb including Crocs and a Rolling Stones t-shirt). It’s not every play with major social themes like this one that could metaphorically mix the classical with the clowning as successfully as this work, and it’s not every playwright who could carry this off with such fearless focus and energy. Parks knows her sources well and utilizes them with all the aplomb and dexterity of a master juggler with a firm eye on the jugular. Pity the temerity of a theatergoer who’s unwilling or unable to surrender to the almost-lost art of storytelling at its purist.

Part 1, set in the spring of 1862 on a modest Texan plantation, and entitled “A Measure of a Man”, begins with a lively debate by the “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” (Charlie Hudson III, Tonye Patano, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Julian Rozzell, Jr.) and The Oldest Old Man (Harold Surratt) about whether the slave Hero (Benton Greene) will make the choice to accompany his “bossmaster” into battle, and leave behind the love of his life, Penny (Jenny Jules). Also involved in the issue is another slave, Homer (Sekou Laidlow). Part 2, in the latter part of the summer of the same year, set in “a wooded area in the South, pretty much in the middle of nowhere”, is entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness”, involving Hero, his master The Colonel (Ken Marks) and their captive Union soldier, Smith (Michael Crane). Part 3, set in 1863, again in a modest Texan plantation, featuring a group of runaway slaves, is entitled “The Union of My Confederate Parts” in which Hero’s fate is revealed by his faithful Odyssey Dog (Jacob Ming-Trent), in a sort of deus ex mongrel. There is much revelation to come, but won’t be divulged here. Suffice it to say that there are secrets that will inform you not just about these characters themselves, but about the playwright’s themes of faithfulness and freedom. Actually, if truth be told, Parks seems less interested in the abstract notions of pompous themes as she is in how her characters lived them or failed to do so. She’s not focused on “faith” and “freedom” as much as on what it means to be faithful and to be free. As the otherwise obtuse Colonel (who actually thanks God he was created white, a courageous bit of playwrighting in itself) asks, once the Union wins the war and they’re granted “freedom”, “What then?”; it’s the story of “what then?” that one looks forward to in Parks’ remaining parts.

This cast, first introduced in the production done in partnership with New York’s Public Theater last fall, is uniformly wondrous. It seems unfair to single out individuals, but Jules is so strong she commands that attention must be paid. And there’s that mutt, as incarnated by Ming-Trent, looking like a shag rug cross between an ottoman and Ozymandias, in a verbal and physical marathon of comic (and cosmic) acting that would split anyone’s sides. And both Greene and Laidlow are unforgettable, as directed by Jo Bonney, who’s quite an adept and adaptable, even astonishing, ringmaster. The technical crew is in keeping with this theatrically entrancing circus, from the Scenic Design by Neil Patel to the Costume Design by Esosa, Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, Sound Design and Music Supervision by Dan Moses Schreier, and Music Direction by Steven Bargonetti (who provides continuity with his live performance of Songs and Additional Music by Parks).

At one point, we’re advised: “keep your treasures close”. That would presumably include creative artists like Parks, who has already lived up to her earlier promise. Her writing runs, nay races, from the sublime and lyrical to the (intentionally) low and ridiculous. Hers is a voice to be reckoned with, now and in the remaining six parts to come. As several of her characters in the current trilogy might say: Mark it.

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