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There is often such assured wisdom in the blues. Historically drawing inspiration from the pain of heartbreak—and often the desire to overcome some form of oppression—it’s the musical form that best communicates a narrative, distilling the songwriter’s story. That’s what comes to mind each time blues musician Memphis Gold (playing The Musician) is seen and heard in Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Gold narrates the journey of Hero, the aptly named protagonist in Pulitzer-Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ ambitiously epic Civil War trilogy.
The first three parts of Father, making their regional premiere here at Round House, are parts of a larger cycle of nine plays which seek to chronicle the collective story of African Americans, from the latter days of slavery to our contemporary struggles of externalized and internalized racism. The remaining plays have not yet premiered, but Parks’ larger work—notwithstanding any significant flaws—will be earn accolades for its sheer size and the scope of its ambition. Parks is a far different playwright than the esteemed August Wilson, but the addition of Father to her well-celebrated body of work puts her in conversation with the likes of Wilson as one of America’s greatest theatrical detailers of the black historical experience.
The imaginative rendering and beauty of Father lies in part in the richness of the playwright’s lyrical language. Throughout all of her best work—Topdog/Underdog, In the Blood, and The America Play—Parks’ poetic language traverses time and ranges from contemporary urban vernacular to more formal language. It’s her trademark. In Father Comes Home, the musicality of the dialogue allows the characters, most of whom are slaves throughout the three parts, to maintain an intellectual dignity that is sometimes lost in plays chronicling American slavery.
Parks’ epic draws inspiration from The Odyssey, her story concerning the return home of a slave following the signing of The Emancipation Proclamation. Hero, played with verve and confidence by D.C. native JaBen Early, is initially portrayed as the archetypical, masculine ideal. In part one, “A Measure of a Man,” The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, a group of four, take bets on whether or not Hero will accompany Boss-Master (Tim Getman), to service in the Confederate army. Boss-Master has promised Hero freedom, if he agrees to join him as his personal servant during the war. It’s made quite clear, however, that Boss-Master has broken that very same promise multiple times before.
The second part, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” is the strongest of the trilogy. Boss-Man is now a colonel in the Confederate Army, and he’s captured a union soldier, Smith, who just happens to be a white man leading a Union Colored Infantry regiment. Boss-Man is a proud racist, who easily slings around the N-word, and clearly delights in his ownership of a number of slaves. His suspenseful and dramatic interactions with both Smith and Hero hold the audience captive—he declares earnestly, “I am grateful every day that God made me white.”
It’s really not till the concluding part, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” that production problems begin to arise, largely around the playwright’s unconventional stage direction. Prior to Hero’s return to the plantation that he calls home, actor Craig Wallace morphs into Odd-See the dog, Hero’s missing companion from part one. He now talks directly to the audience and bounces around with childlike exuberance. It works for a while, but eventually becomes taxing. The relationship between Hero and his wife Penny also begins to wear thin, despite some initial intrigue. By the play’s conclusion, what began as an epic theatrical examination of some of our biggest questions about personal freedom and the American experience has digressed into a “woman scorned” cliche. However, as the characters are seen walking slowly towards an uncertain future, it’s clear that the creative work of Director Timothy Douglas and Scenic Designer Tony Cisek, has contributed to a flawed, but nonetheless impressive drama about the complexity of freedom and its varying costs.
Handout photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) runs until Feb. 28 at Round House Theatre.