Sunday, 9 November 2014

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS by Susan Lori Parks at the Public Theater

     I have to admit that up until now I haven't been an admirer of Susan Lori Parks' work. I remember watching almost the entire audience leave during a regional theatre production of one of her plays and thinking they were right to do so. I made it through TOPDOG/UNDERDOG but thought it was a rehash of an earlier play. Not Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth again! 365 DAYS/365 PLAYS struck me as being akin to publishing the contents of Parks' wastebasket. Needless to say, I went to FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, PARTS 1, 2, & 3 with some trepidation. I even got an aisle seat just in case I didn't want to stay until the end. By the end of the three hours of this play, I was converted.
     Much of Parks' work has to do with the aftermath of the Civil War. FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, set in 1862-3 is a meditation on freedom and, as the title of the first play of this trilogy, "The Measure of a Man," suggests, about the value of a life. There are strong echoes of Homer's ODYSSEY, but our Ulysses (self-named), isn't much of a hero. There's even the chorus and elevated poetic language of classical Greek drama.
     We first meet Hero, a slave on a small estate, as he is trying to decide whether to accompany his master, a Confederate colonel, to war, wound himself so he can't go, or run away. Hero has been a good slave. He even betrayed his friend Homer, who tried to escape. The master cut off Homer's foot to make sure that doesn't happen again. Hero vacillates in the manner of a character in a neo-classical French drama, but he's too attached to his role as slave to follow either of the other alternatives. Hero will don the ragged imitation of a Confederate uniform and follow his master into battle, leaving his wife Penny behind. The "Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves" argue over the possible alternatives, even bet on them. For Hero, ultimately, there is only one right course of action, which is to live out the role that defines him -- there's a good bit of existentialism under the surface of Parks's play. There are only three characters in the second, strongest play of the three; Hero, the increasingly drunk master, and a Union soldier he has captured. Much of the discussion is about Hero's price. What would he bring on the auction block? Clearly the master sees Hero's material value as a measure of his own value, but Hero accept that valuation. In one of the most telling moments of the trilogy, the Union soldier who, it turns out, is mixed race, thus seen as Black, offers Hero the chance to run away after Hero has freed him. Hero responds that he knows his value with his master. What will his value be if he is free? This question has enormous resonance as one ponders the history of African-Americans since the Civil War. Here, as elsewhere, the question that hangs over the play is What does freedom mean, particularly for a Black man? The final play takes place after the Emancipation Proclamation, but Jenny, Homer and the runaway slaves they protect don't know this as they plan to escape the now masterless plantation. Homer returns with a copy of the proclamation but fails to tell his fellow slaves that they are free. It's a detail that doesn't seem important to him, or perhaps he knows that they are not truly free. He will stay on the plantation, which is home to him, and sire a new family. Penny, this version of Penelope, is not as faithful. The life Hero, now called Ulysses, has planned for her is one that shows how much he has in common with his now slain master.
     FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS is what one might call a discussion play, full of lively argument over weighty matters. Not much actually happens, but every action we see is momentous. It's one of those plays where you'd like to be able to stop it once in a while and think about what has just been said. The language is lively, often beautiful, sometimes funny, as in the third play when a dog takes on the role of the messenger in Greek drama, imparting key information. As Eugene O'Neill claimed in his trilogy MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (Parks seems to have used this play as a model for her chorus), the Civil War defines so much of what followed and has to be the setting for our national tragedy as the Trojan War was the setting for Athenian dramatists. Parks forces us to hear what her characters say in the context of what has followed over the last century and a half. Like all great writers of history plays, Parks knows that such plays are as much commentaries on the present as on the past. This is particularly true in the middle play of this trilogy.
     Jo Bonney has given the play the production it deserves. The Anspacher Theater, which is like an ampitheater, is the perfect setting for this play modeled on Greek tragedy. The cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Sterling K. Brown as Hero and Ken Marks as the master who defines himself through his power over others. Special praise to Jacob Ming Trent's dog, who has a large portion of the lines in the third play.
     The fact that Susan Lori Parks calls this Parts 1, 2, & 3 suggests that there will be more parts. I look forward to seeing them.
FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS PARTS 1, 2, &3. Public Theater. November 8, 2014

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