Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, III
American Conservatory Theatre
a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre
The dark and psychologically twisted period of American slavery is beautifully probed in Suzan-Lori Parks epic tale Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, & III. It’s tough material for sure, with cringe worthy characterizations that expose the dark side of racism, low self-esteem and the abuses people inflict on each other under horrendous circumstances of both slavery and war. Using great classics of literature as touchstones, Parks has created a masterpiece of language played out by a stellar cast of very believable characters.
Set in three acts, the story may seem simple; a man must choose his woman or his freedom. But of course, it’s a complicated matter making for compelling drama that is marvelously presented in a combination of music, great acting and excellent production values. Act I sets Park’s story in motion as a chorus of enslaved people anxiously await a decision that will be made by the story’s protagonist Hero (James Udom). They’re placing bets on whether he’ll stay with his woman Penny (Eboni Flowers) or follow his ‘bossmassa’ to war with the hope that he’ll be freed after his service. Their wagers are based on his integrity and the fear of the master’s vicious retribution should be rebuffed. Hero’s surrogate father, the Oldest Man (Steven Anthony Jones) encourages Hero to seek his freedom, Penny of course makes him stay. When its revealed that Hero had betrayed his friend Homer and was forced to maim the man, Hero is shunned forcing him to change his decision and go off to fight the white man’s war.
Act II lays bare the ugly face of white supremacy with a standout performance by Dan Hiatt as plantation owner The Colonel. His speech thanking God for making him white is the disgusting justification of enslavement and the lies of benevolence. Hero dutifully serves his master, fearful of running away to freedom as his self-worth is tied to his value as a slave. The drunken Colonel torments both Hero and his Union prisoner, Captain Smith (Tom Pecinka). When its revealed that Smith is black, Hero’s world view is challenged, but still he stays with the Colonel and the only life he knows.
Act III finds the enslaved plantation workers ready for change. Some are planning a runaway North and a pregnant Penny has shacked up with Homer. When they hear the Colonel is dead and there may be some sort of proclamation, Penny wonders if Hero is dead as well. His faithful dog Odyssey returns (a hilarious performance by Gregory Wallace) to tell the tale of Hero’s imminent return, but its not the kind of homecoming you’d expect. Hero has a new wife and expects Penny to stick around and accept the fact. Homer decides to leave with the runaways and wants Penny to join him.
Betrayals play a large role in the stories. The character’s moral compasses are askew and their bad decisions drive the action. Parks script is magnificent; her meter full of African-American rhythms highlighted by original folk music sung by Martin Luther McCoy. Yi Zhao’s lighting captures the hot Southern suns and the incessant cannon blasts of the charging enemy army. Sarah Nietfeld’s costumes reflect the drab greys and browns of the slave existence and Riccardo Hernandez has set the story amid a corrugated shack and large rusted iron beams. The effect is that of a broken Confederacy already in shambles.
Director Liz Diamond, who previously work with Parks on 1989’s Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, allows the words to shine and elicits award worthy performances from every member of the ensemble. Parks has created something very special here. Weaving together elements of “The Odyssey”, the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata” and the “Bhagavad Gita” among others, she’s awakened the timeless story of the search for freedom and identity for all ages. Present day America is still grappling with the hideous remnants of slavery making Father even more forceful.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts I,II & III) continues through May 20, 2018 at A.C.T., 415 Geary Street. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org or by calling 415-749-2228.
Photo credits by Joan Marcus.