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A CurtainUp Review
Father Comes Home From The Wars (parts 1, 2 & 3

He dangled it in front of me. My Freedom. Like a beautiful carrot. Like a diamond. And those scraps of uniform and the diamond Freedom glittered . . .but while I so wanted to I was still thinking on the bald fact that in his service I will be helping out on the wrong side.— Hero expressing his to go-or not go dilemma in Part 1

I am grateful every day that God made me white. As a white I stand on the summit and all the other colors reside beneath me, down below.— Hero's white supremacist owner in Part 2

. . .to make it all right, to make it bearable, so I could breathe I went and I cut my own soul from myself And I gave it up to him. Or I lost it.— Hero reflecting on his bitter victory in Part 3.
Father Comes Home From the War
Jenny Jules, Tonye Patano, Julian Rozzell Jr., Sterling K. Brown, and Jeremie Harris (Photo: Joan Marcus)
No hyperbole about the advance billing for Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From the Wars. It fully delivers on its promise of serving up an explosively powerful drama about the mess of war, the cost of freedom, and the heartbreak of love. The all-in-one trilogy further cements Parks's reputation as one of the contemporary theater's best and most original playwright. Her plays are dramatically rich, always have something to say, and say it with often poetic dialogue.

The war being dramatized is The Civil War, one of the bloodiest and most decisive chapters in America's history. Father Comes Home. . . progresses over less than two years — from early spring 1862 to late fall 1863. But what's at stake here is not whether the South or the North prevails as much as the choices made by one individual who happens to be a slave, and how those choices affect those close to him. What we have is not so much a slice of war story as an imaginative, multi-faceted narrative that touches on the many meanings of trustworthiness and integrity. With its crucial decision maker named Hero, and others Penny and Homer, it's also a savvy spin on the Odyssey myth.

The three parts flow into each other, with the scene transitions enlivened with blues-y songs composed by Ms. Parks and performed by guitarist Steven Bargonetti. Part 1 establishes the overall situation of the war's calling the men in states allied to the Confederacy's cause to take up arms. In this case, the war-bound warrior is the owner of a West Texas plantation. While we hear about him and his wife, the characters we meet are their slaves. The action revolves around the question of whether Hero (Sterling Brown, in a performance true to his first name), the Boss-Master's right-hand man and the play's central character, will accompany him into battle.

For several of the men listed in the program as "The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, Hero's decision boils down to a bet. Being possession-less, the only chips these gamblers have are a spoon and a pair of shoes.

Penny (a fiercely passionate Jenny Jules), Hero's beloved sees his choosing to go as desertion. Hero's nominal father, the Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez, convincingly frail and aged in a role reminiscent of some of August Wilson's characters) is willing for him to go, especially since the master has promised to free him as a reward for his service.

Homer (a superbly nuanced Jeremie Harris), who has experienced slavery at its worst as a result of a failed runaway effort, sees Hero's choices as a damned if you do and damned if you don't proposition. Not trusting the master to make good on either his promise of freedom or his assurance that no one will be punished if Hero opts against accompanying him, Homer proposes a grim but necessary alternative to avoid having to make a choice.

Father Comes Home From the War
Sterling K. Brown, Ken Marks and (in cage) Louis Cancelmi (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Hero is himself conflicted since going to war means leaving Penny and allying himself with the wrong cause. There's also his closeness to his master that turns out to be the most complex issue at the heart of all three parts. That dicy respect/hate, trust/mistrust relationship leads to the middle section where we find Hero and his master  n the middle of a battle field. The deceitful master is now a Colonel (Ken Marks, playing this hateful bigot to the hilt). This segment may seem somewhat melodramatic. But then isn't the whole true story of Americans owning human beings as unbelievably melodramatic as you can get?

At any rate, the excellent performances keep the Colonel's villainous behavior and his interaction with a captured Yankee army captain named Smith (a fine Louis Cancelmi) all too believable. The same is true for Part 3 in which Hero returns home for an at once joyous and devastating reunion with those he left behind.

There's one other character, mentioned in the first part who (shades of the portentous gun in Chekhov's plays) disappears in the Part 1 and reappears in the last. I'll admit I'm not fond of adult actors playing children or actors of any age playing talking dogs. However, Jacob Ming-Trent's aptly named Odyssey Dog does add a needed bit of humor and turns out to be a meaningful commentator on his master's moral dilemma.

Under Jo Bonney's steady-handed direction there isn't a dull moment in the three hours which include one break before the final "The Union of my Confederate Parts."

Neil Patel's woodsy scenery features the front of a slave cabin that rises for the the battle scene which includes a cage made of sticks for the Union prisoner. The cabin drops down again for the finale. An upstage walkway creates a sense of the overall property. Esosa's grey, black and rust hued costumes complement the scenic design.

As the daughter of a career military man, Ms. Parks saw her father return from wars right through Vietnam. Being told he had gone off to fight for freedom led her to seek a dramatic way to make sense of the freedoms men fight for and how those fights affect all those caught up in them. In this, the first of a continuing cycle, Parks' story pivots around an ironically named slave whose decision to accept a risky offer of freedom has unintended consequences for others as well as himself.

Beautifully crafted in every respect as the current production is, it's hard to say if it has Broadway transfer potential, so don't miss the chance to see it before this all too brief run ends. With the playwright already filled with ideas for the plays which will take this initial triptych into the present, maybe the Public Theater can make plans for one of those all day marathons that theater goers seem to love. I hope so.

Links to other work by Suzan-Lori Parks reviewed at Curtainup: Top/Dog Underdog
In the Blood
F***ing A
Book of Grace
Book for musical, Ray Charles Live
Book for Porgy & Bess

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Part 1: A Measure of a Man- June 1962. . .Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness- Late Summer 1862. . 'Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts- Fall 1863.
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jo Bonney
Cat:Sterling K. Brown (Hero-Parts 1-2-3); Louis Cancelmi (Smith-Part); Peter Jay Fernandez (Oldest Old Man); Jeremie Harris (Homer); Russell G. Jones (Leader/ Runaway Slave); Jenny Jules (Penny); Ken Marks (Colonel); Jacob Ming-Trent (Fourth),Jacob Ming Trent (Odysey Dog), Russell G. Jones, Tonye Patano, Julian Rozzelli Jr (Runaway Slaves)
Music arranged and performed by Steven Bargonetti
Scenery: Neil Patel
Costumes: Esosa
Lighting Lap Chi Chu
Sound design and music supervisor: Dan Moses Schreier
Hair, wig and Makeup design: Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas
Songs and additional Music: Suzan-Loi Parks
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whilock
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission
Public's Anspacher Theater, 420 Lafayette Street
From 10/14/14; opening 10/28/14; closing 12/07/14
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 25th press preview
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