American, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t shy away from epic projects. Six years ago, she wrote a play a day to create 365 Days/365 Plays, then went on to write the nine-part Father Comes Home From the Wars. Parts one, two and three centre around Hero, a strapping young slave on a remote Texan farm. Spanning the Civil War, this epic story with influence from Greek myths and contemporary socio-political issues in Parks’ distinctive, poetic language takes its time to develop and has some discordant stylistic choices, but its narrative and historical interpretation is both compelling and important.
Each of the three parts has moments of profound brilliance and devastation, but Parks is in no rush to tell her story. The dialogue-driven script takes its time, meandering around a complex landscape of slavery, loyalty and race within this particular slave family. Though set in war time, there is little action – broader issues drive the conversation more so than current events. This is more of a kitchen sink drama than a wartime adventure story.
Part one solely takes place on the farm as Hero debates whether or not join his master in battle. The rest of the slaves take bets and try to persuade him one way or the other, but in the back of Hero’s mind is a promise from the Boss-Master – but is he likely to keep his end of the deal? Hero’s loyalty is split between his owner and his wife Penny, but the lure of the cast-off but smart uniform proves too much. Though little happens, the domesticity of part one has some of the tension that precedes a huge decision. Seeing a tall, strapping black man in the prime of his life wearing Confederate greys is most unsettling; this paired with the ingrained, accepted attitude that he is the property of his owner is a potent reminder that there has been insufficient progress in America’s attempts at racial equality.
Part two, though set at a particular moment in the midst of the war, has the calm of an eye of a storm and is by far the best of the three parts. Hero and Boss-Master have captured a Yankee prisoner whilst separated from their regiment during a battle. Hero’s loyalty is tested again, this time by his prisoner upon discovery of a secret that’s hidden in plain sight and only skin deep. Racial identity, individuality and freedom intertwine in an intoxicating allure of potential for Hero, who is still doggedly loyal to his owner. The powerful ending devastates in its frank depiction of ingrained attitudes of racial inferiority and liberal frustration with this mentality.
Part three is the more mature sibling to part one. The characters are older, wiser and more world weary in the face of Southern defeat. The pre-war certainty has given way to a chance at the great unknown of freedom, and for the first time they can choose where they live – anywhere in the great, wide world, or on the farm they have known forever. Penny and Hero’s devotion is destabilised in this irrevocably changed world that is now free, but cold and dangerous – and still is for black Americans today. The morality of freedom isn’t black or white here, but the ominous, thought-provoking grey of Hero’s, (now called Ulysses) uniform.
Neil Patel’s unforgiving desert of a set doesn’t have bells and whistles, but it’s sparsity highlights the richness of Park’s language and characterisation. Steve Toussaint is the remarkable Hero, painted with delicate light and shade. The rest of the cast are excellent in their own right, though lack the development of the initially appropriately-named lead.
Parks’ script is almost completely bedded in realism (that’s occasionally heightened), though a talking pet and some contemporary costumes slightly skew reality. Both are used sparingly and without any evident justification across the three parts so their inclusion feels jarring and unnecessary. The onstage musician, though very much a separate commentator, doesn’t clash the way these choices do.
For a play set during a war and a pivotal moment of America’s history, it is oddly detached from violence and conflict. Instead, Parks’ text goes after deeper themes within this transition from slavery to freedom. Though a greater sense of danger and looming dread would add needed further tension in parts one and two, the nuance that flows through the story is undeniably exquisite.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) run through 22 October.
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