Reviews Off-Broadway Published 29 October 2014

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)

Public Theater ⋄ 14th October - 16th November 2014

Freedom, maybe.

Molly Grogan

If Bob Dylan was right, and a hero understands the responsibilities of freedom, then Hero, the obedient slave in Suzan-Lori Parks’ brave new work, Father Comes Home From the Wars, has certainly betrayed his name. Worse, in this equally measured and playful examination of liberty and the meaning of fidelity, he will lose just about everything else too.

Parks is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Topdog/Underdog, which hung the specters of race and class out to dry in a contemporary America haunted by its Civil War ghosts. In Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parks works in the opposite direction, using that conflict – specifically the two years surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation, in January 1863 – to expose the entrenched roots of racial inequality in this country.

But this thematically big, Homerically-tinged, three-part, three-hour play is full of surprises. For one, the setting is an arid Far West Texas farm of less than a dozen slaves: nothing like the bustling cotton plantations usually associated with the Antebellum south and its War of Secession. For another, Hero is soon unmasked as much less than his namesake: he may be “big, brave, smart, honest and strong, the favorite,” according to the Chorus of Less Desirable Slaves (as well as writing in a folksy Americanese, Parks is also an agile ironist), he has a checkered past, driven by the single ambition to impress the Boss-Master enough to be granted his freedom. The question that kicks off the play’s first section, “A Measure of a Man,” is already a loaded one: will Hero abandon love and family to serve this Confederate colonel in the rebel army defending the institution that enslaves him? Again, the irony is self-evident.

As it turns out, he will, so his adventure and the surprises continue in the play’s second section, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” which gets to the heart of the matter. Can race be measured? Can freedom be given? Can equality be lived? Parks sets up the debate using three distinct points of view: Hero’s, the Colonel’s and that of a captive Union soldier named Smith. Their intellectual battle has them trying on and discarding roles as easily as the uniforms they wear, but the beaten-down Hero will find he has to reclaim the meaning of his name against both the Colonel’s jocular sadism (Ken Marks delivers a stereotypical Confederate hick) and the very existence of Smith (Louis Cancelmi, in a quietly true performance), who has a few revelations of his own up his sleeve. Notwithstanding the cool righteousness Sterling K. Brown brings to the role, his Hero is a tragically failed man. This contrasting trio creates the play’s dramatic centerpiece.

Parks brings it all home, however, in the final tableau, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” when the action returns to the Colonel’s farm. Until this point, ESOSA’s costuming (multicolored, dusty slave rags, the uniforms of the North and the South) had underscored Parks’ intended realism, but when the lights rise there is a whole new kind of slave – runaways, in fact – sitting on Hero’s porch, wearing anonymous grey street clothes. They are waiting for sunset to continue their push northwards, but they could just as easily be sitting on a stoop in Brooklyn. Their ascending arc (the Emancipation Proclamation has been declared) will intersect Hero’s (now renamed Ulysses, after the Union Army’s commanding general) declining trajectory: to paraphrase Malcolm X, freedom can only be taken.

Parks uses call-and-response structures for the chorus’ dialogues, so that these bookend scenes, while thematically weighted, glide past like a fireside folktale. She also slides in a kind of folk trickster : Hero’s long-lost dog, Odyssey, who brings fabulous news upon his miraculous return. In addition to the narrative purpose he serves, this big ol’ hound (played with shaggy exuberance by Jacob Ming-Trent) provides the humorous counterpoint of many a tale’s moral lesson, although this is managed with so much fun and abandon his appearance nearly sinks Parks’ higher-minded intentions.

Discounting that one foray into physical humor, Jo Bonney’s direction keeps a tight hand on the play’s tension, which also revolves around the love triangle formed by Hero, his “wife” Penny (Jenny Jules) and his nemesis (Jeremie Harris), who display reserves of integrity, love and fortitude that Hero cannot match. Parks’ thematic concerns are also powerfully emotionalized by the chorus of slaves turned runaways (Russell G. Jones,  Tonye Patano and Julian Rozzell Jr.), whose complicity with the audience led several members to speak back to the actors on the night I attended, as well as Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design, which lends gritty blues and bluegrass accompaniment to the musical preludes and epilogues Parks created for each of the play’s three parts.

In Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parks writes masterfully again of race in America, blending lyrical and homespun registers, humor, tragedy, folk wisdom and street smarts to posit that our continuing struggle to create an equal society still hinges on the question these slaves asked themselves. The chorus sums up the problem with characteristic insight, “Freedom will swell me, maybe. Maybe it will burst my brains to madness. Maybe it will flood my heart to death. Will I say, at the end of the day, ‘God, I wish I’d stayed home?’”


Molly Grogan

Molly is a New York Co-Editor for Exeunt.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) Show Info

Directed by Jo Bonney

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks

Cast includes 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.


Running Time 2 hrs, 50 mins (with 1 intermission)



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