What price freedom? Suzan-Lori Parks at the Mark Taper Forum
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) – a review
The latest effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to come to the Mark Taper Forum (“Topdog/Underdog” has stayed with me all these years) takes place during the Civil War and begins on a modest plantation in Texas, where it also concludes after a scene in the battle zone, described as “pretty much in the middle of nowhere.”
Parks, like August Wilson before her, has an ear for the poetic, a kind of free-verse conversational style, and her characters are a pleasure just to listen to. Not surprisingly, Parks is also an adept
songwriter, and her music, performed by the accomplished guitarist, Steven Bargonetti, permeates the story.
In the first act we encounter a few of the slaves who work on the plantation, and in particular The Oldest Old Man (Roger Robinson), who is somewhat of a mentor-father figure to Hero (Sterling K. Brown). Is Hero going to try and run away? That’s what the other slaves (Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Tonye Patano, and Patrena Murray) are asking themselves. They’re also wondering where Hero’s dog is, and why it hasn’t come back.
In addition to Hero, we meet two other central characters, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) and Homer (Larry Powell). Now, if I tell you that the dog is named Odyssey Dog you’ll do what’s natural, which is to draw a connection between Hero and Homer and Penny (Penelope) and one of classical literature’s greatest epics. Is that what Parks is pointing us toward?
After all, the playwright has determined that she’ll make a trilogy out of this, if not a tetralogy, and that’ll put her in company with Peter Jackson and Richard Wagner with just a few pegs short of August Wilson’s African-American decameron.
Modern day depictions of heroes tend to be anti-heroes, and the Hero of “Father Comes Home…” could well be the latter. Nor is he quite like the Ulysses (as he later brands himself) who fought in the Trojan War or even the one who sits on our $50 bill. An Everyman, then? Our Hero is a guy who wants to get away from the plantation. His options for doing so, of course, are limited.
Throughout, the play touches on the subject of freedom, but then asks, At what price? Some people are held back while others hold themselves back.
The plantation owner, simply referred to as the Colonel (Michael McKean), offers to set Hero free if he’ll accompany him into battle. Hero is not keen on fighting for a cause that’s exactly the opposite to what he wants or believes, but the offer sounds good. Well, sort of. The Colonel had once before promised Hero his freedom and then reneged on it. That’s not exactly a good track record.
When we meet the Colonel, it’s in the second act. The slave cabin that centered the first act is suspended high overhead, and in its place is a makeshift campsite with a wooden cage in which sits a Yankee prisoner name Smith (Josh Wingate). Even with these few props, the stage has the barren feel of the Taper’s “Waiting for Godot.” Smith, with a severely injured leg, is a private masquerading as a captain, and the Colonel (already an expert in the use of people as bargaining chips) thinks he can get a nice price for him.
Director Jo Bonney has previously been at the helm for this play when it was on the East Coast, and if there were any loose ends (“No, wait, you stand over here”) they’ve all been tied up: it flows effortlessly from start to finish.
I’m not sure how far Parks wants to pursue the “Odyssey” allusions, it’s possible she’s just throwing us a bone, but one could imagine the caged soldier as a meal or meal ticket for the Colonel, akin to Polyphemus, the cyclops who intended to roast Ulysses and all of his men.
Regardless, the second act is probably the best one in the play. McKeen’s Colonel is endearing one moment and sadistic the next. He can prance about with a plume in his hat or he can point a gun at his prisoner just for the heck of it. Humor abounds, but a wariness as well.
Smith’s purpose here is to put ideas into Hero’s head, larger, profound ideas, and ones he never entertained before. There’s a pact and an exchange of sorts between these two. After all, the Colonel has both of them under his thumb
There is some rejoicing when Hero (now Ulysses) returns to the plantation. The Colonel (am I spoiling anything by revealing this?) does not come out of the skirmishes alive, but neither did he keep his promise and give Hero his freedom.
Most overjoyed to see him is Penny, who’s been waiting her heart out. Probably least overjoyed to see Hero is Homer, who has in the meantime done all he can to woo Penny, and all to no avail (as was the case with the other Penelope’s suitors)… until he asks for one last kiss and then, you know, fireworks go off inside her head.
However, Homer realizes he’s the odd-man out after Hero shows up, and seems resigned to it. He’s about to head out of Dodge, or at least West Texas, when Hero/Ulysses announces that he’s brought back a wife. Oh, but there’s a place for you too, Penny, he says; and we ask, Was he really naive to think that a woman who longed for him every day while he was gone is going to accept these new conditions?
The first part of the play is called “A Measure of a Man,” and now this seems to refer to the third part as well (which is, incidentally, titled “The Union of My Confederate Parts”).
But just as Roger Robinson shone bright as the Oldest Old Man in the first scene and Michael McKean shone bright as the Colonel in the second, the third scene of the play is enlightened and brightened by Patrena Murray as the Odyssey Dog. A big, talking dog that almost steals the show. She and her master sit on the porch of the slave shack as the others set off to make a new life for themselves. As man’s best friend, Odyssey Dog has the last word on faithfulness.
It’s quite a play, a little wordy in the first and third acts, but polished and well rehearsed and with a remarkable cast. I’m not sure where Suzan-Lori Parks will be taking us with the other plays that will be linked to this one, but one can be certain they’ll be worth our attention.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. No public performances April 28. Closes May 15. Tickets, $25 to $85. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER
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