By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out“)
Suzan-Lori Parks based a good portion of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), her tale of slavery set during the Civil War, on the ancient Greek tale of “The Iliad. ” As if to hammer the point home, she even went so far as to include a chorus in the introductory act (“A Measure of a Man”), a slave character named Homer and the part of a dog named Odyssey Dog in the third and final act (“The Union of My Confederate Parts”) of this drama that plays out over the course of three hours.
Known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Underdog, Parks proved she could be relevant with modern drama and modern language. With Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) playing now at the Marquette Theatre on the Loyola University campus, she imbues the mostly slave characters of the Old South with contemporary language and a dignity for their bitter existence.
Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, this regional premiere is presented by Southern Rep as the final entry of its 2016-17 season.
Parks has said this will be part of a trilogy with other fathers set to come home from more contemporary wars like the Second World War and the Vietnam War. But rather than ruminate on what will come, attention must be paid on her present convention and that is clearly an opportunity to comment on race relations between blacks and between blacks and their white masters at a time where slaves might be employed as soldiers in order to fight to keep the peculiar institution that kept them from being free.
Sam Malone portrays Hero, the docile servant who so desires to break the chains of his servitude that he gives up his woman Penny (Idella Johnson) in order to run off to join the Confederate forces in battle on the field. In return he is promised his freedom by the Colonel (Greg Baber), a racist white with a history of making empty promises. Hero must ultimately choose between the promise of freedom coupled with the very real prospect of disease, disfigurement and death or the certain future of a continued existence where he cannot be free.
Robert Diago DoQui plays fellow slave Homer, who has designs on Hero’s wife, but she will not allow herself to be courted while Hero remains in Texas and far away from war. Harold X. Evans plays the Oldest Old Man, a role which allows him to act as both sage and oracle for what will ensue.
The most interesting of the three acts is the second act (“A Battle in the Wilderness”) in which the Colonel confronts a captured Union officer, Smith (Todd D’Amour) from a Kansas regiment that also employs men of color as soldiers fighting for their freedom. The Colonel confronts Smith demanding to know how he can justify conscripting blacks for his cause, while not seeing the hipocrisy of his own actions with regards to Hero. Meanwhile, Hero and Smith find themselves in a peculiar reversal of fortune. The Confederate slave-soldier is free to fight, while the Union officer has lost his freedom and must submit to the will of the Colonel. But Smith also holds a secret that Hero seems to intuit and it is one which can have deadly consequences.
With the final act, Parks suggests a long period of adjustment for all the players. The slaves are about to enjoy emancipation, but they don’t know it yet. The return of Hero from the war signalled by the return of Odyssey Dog (Zeb Hollins III) puts a strain on Penny’s relationship with him and Homer must deal with the possibility of having to fight for the woman he loves, but cannot truly have. A trio of runaway slaves – those that comprised the chorus in the first act – John Ray Proctor, Martin Bradford and LaKesha Glover – continue to make progress in their pitch for freedom. They entreat Penny and Homer to join them, but Penny wants to start things anew with Hero.
She is prepared to throw off her shackles of temporary shelter in Homer’s arms when she learns of Hero’s impending return. But Hero, who is now tasting the bitter dregs of freedom discovers he is unable to enjoy the simple existence he once had. He is moved instead by fits of jealousy for Homer, even though he proves himself not worthy of Penny’s devotion. The conflict is resolved at play’s end, but none of the characters finds themselves in a position where they area capable of enjoying the freedom they are about to receive.
Joan Long has designed impressive lighting for the drama, while Martin Andrew’s set is simple, yet effective. Laura Sirkin-Brown executes well-designed costumes for the production, which Curtis-Newton has fashioned deliberately and delicately, telling the plight of the characters with great
Aimée Hayes, producing artistic director and Jenny Windstrup, Southern Rep’s managing director are to be congratulated for assembling such a fine team of performers and superb technical directors.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) continues its regional premiere run from Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. now through June 25. Sunday matinees start at 3:00 p.m. For more information call 504-522-6545 or click on their website to purchase tickets directly.