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There’s sport to be had in the consideration of someone else’s fate,” observes a Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves. This wry observation, made by onlookers outside a slave cabin in far West Texas, comes in the first of three short but threaded plays, setting up the theme and tone of Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), a new piece by Suzan-Lori Parks. Each act playfully contemplates changing dilemmas of freedom and slavery, of leaving and returning, at pivotal moments during the Civil War. Without losing her antic sensibility, Parks references Greek tragedy and epics in structure and language, yielding an enlargement of her writing and a full, often rewarding drama.
Parks’s early writing in the 1990s matched constantly mutating, elliptical dialogue (“rep and rev,” as she called it) with ingeniously transcendent scenarios. The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World (1990) follows the title character as he dies many times over from endless tribulations, constantly repositioning himself against his end-time. The America Play (1994) introduced us to the Foundling Father, who re-enacts Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and leads us to the Great Hole of History in search of moorings and origins. From the conceptual adventures and ebullient, twisty language of those early works, Parks has evolved into a different kind of playwright, pitting more-conventional narratives against eccentrically loopy dialogue and mellow guitar riffs. But with Father Comes Home, the muscularity of those early plays resurfaces; to me it feels like Parks’s richest, most satisfying play since she left “rep and rev” behind.
In Part 1, Hero (played with fluidity by Sterling K. Brown) and his kin deliberate over whether to believe his master’s promise of freedom if Hero joins him on the Confederate battlefield. In Part 2, Hero and his master, the Colonel, hold a Union soldier prisoner, changing the slave’s understanding of freedom. And in the final segment, the Ulysses-like Hero returns to his disoriented Penny (the superb Jenny Jules) back at the West Texas homestead. Emancipation has been proclaimed, but ethical and spiritual
fallout remains. Hero faces tough choices. His personal crossroads glow with greater significance for a nation in transition.
Such pared-down, apocryphal scenes might feel a bit Sunday school, a specter that’s not helped by Jo Bonney’s uninspiring production. But the playwright throws things off kilter with a few triumphant disruptions: In Part 2 the Colonel indulges in a stunningly racist aria, heedless of his audience, a captive Unionist and a slave. “I am grateful every day that God made me white,” he declares, taking off from there. Another torrent of words gets unleashed in Part 3, when Odyssey Dog (Jacob Ming-Trent) — Hero’s sidekick — delivers the drama’s classically inflected messenger speech, rendering epochal events like the war’s conclusion mainly from a canine point of view. The scene nicely upends the unfolding drama’s rhythm; Ming-Trent, with his furry vest and winking demeanor, nearly steals the show as the dog raises fresh questions about what it means to serve a master.
The real news isn’t that Parks has hit the mark with a complex and ambitious work — she undoubtedly has. It’s that the playful spirit of her best work turns out to be alive and well.