Cape Cod Times: 'Father Comes Home' packs a punch

Father Comes Home From The Wars - Cape Cod Times
Publication date: 
January 30, 2015
Author: 
Jim Sullivan

CAMBRIDGE -- In 2013, the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” took us deep into the gruesome past of the American south, inside that “peculiar institution” that ripped the country apart and led to the Civil War and more than 640,000 casualties.

This year, the American Repertory Theater gives us “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney.

The play is not as bloody or harrowing as “12 Years.” It packs a different kind of punch – less visceral and more cerebral. As “Father” begins, Hero (Benton Greene), a slave laboring for the Boss-Master (Ken Marks), faces a particularly gnawing decision. It’s 1862 and the Boss-Master is soon to join the Confederate fight as a colonel and wants Hero to don the gray uniform to accompany him on his glorious fight for the Stars and Bars.

This is not, of course, a cause dear to Hero – but here’s the rub: Boss-Master has promised Hero he’ll be a free man after the conflict is over. And yet, Boss-Master has made that promise once before and not followed through. (He flat-out lied.) Add to that, the fact that should Hero stay “home,” there would likely be severe whippings for him, his wife Penny (Jenny Jules) and the small group of fellow slaves on the Texas plantation.  

That’s the debate that consumes Hero and his five companions, outside their shack in Part 1, subtitled “A Measure of Man.” Strong arguments are made for each choice by various characters, some of whom switch positions; it may be a black-and-white world, but the issues are not. “Both choices are the same coin flipped over,” notes Hero’s friend, Homer (Sekou Laidlow).

There’s a wondrous and quick transition – credit set designer Neil Patel - to Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness.” There, we encounter the Boss-Master (now known as the Colonel) for the first time. He’s mean and cunning. He’s captured a wily Yankee soldier named Smith (Michael Crane), who might be a captain, and seems to have led a Kansas company of black soldiers. But Smith, the Colonel and Hero are separated from the battlefield – we hear cannon fire in the distance, closing in -- and the exchanges among them are among the play’s edgiest and most explosive. Would Smith own a slave if he could, asks the Colonel, pushing it. Will the Colonel go back on his “promise” again or has he experienced a sincere change of heart? How many Yankee dollars is Hero “worth”? What would the Colonel be worth if he were on the auction block? Are Smith and Hero really on the same side?

A dilemma: How much to reveal now without giving away key plot turns and twists? Since the title tells you “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” I can say that, yes, Hero does go off to the war and returns from it in Part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts.” And since Parks is calling him “father,” we know that he’s a future dad. We can also say that with Hero having Homer as a friend-cum-foil, a wife named not Penelope but a close-to-it Penny, and Hero’s late-in-the-play name change to Ulysses, that there’s more than a little “Odyssey” in Parks’ stew.

Which brings us to Jacob Ming-Trent’s scenery-chewing, big ol’ shaggy dog Odd-See (Get it? Odyssey). He bounds in during the third part -- a year after the action began -- all giddy and dog-like. Odd-See serves as a sometimes humorous explainer and commentator on the situation, as is done in Greek tragedy. He lifts his leg, marks his territory and goes on to say he’s breathlessly followed Hero through his travails and – with much humorous delay – can report he’ll be home soon. “For me, faithful is easy,” Odd-See explains. “Speech comes extra for me.”

Bracketing the acts are some lovely, bluesy songs sung by Steven Bargonetti, who accompanies himself on acoustic guitar and banjo and at times contributes an affecting underscore.

“Father Comes Home From The War” is a long and talky play. There were a few places where it dragged, where points were made and then re-made. (Parks has six more parts in the works.) But in grappling with a series of moral issues – between races, between spouses, between friends -- it’s gripping and tense, throwing an ugly past up in our 21st-century faces. We’ve come so far. Yet … look around … maybe not quite as far as we’d like to think. 

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