Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, III
|Steven Anthony Jones, Rotima Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Julian Elijah Martinez, Chivas Michael|
With their arms raised in front of them, hands forming an “L” shape with thumb extended, the four strain to see the first rays of the next morning’s dawn. All the while, they place their bets of a brass button, a spoon, worn shoes, and a skeletal banjo on whether Hero is off to war when the sun rises. That their master, the Colonel, has offered Hero freedom upon return if he will accompany him to fight the Yankees sounds good, but maybe too good since an earlier such promise to Hero was once reneged. But maybe this time the offer is for real, with a promise so enticing that Hero will leave his common-law wife, Penny, in order to go to the war with the Colonel.
And so opens at the American Conservatory Theatre a joint production with Yale Repertory Theatre of Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, III by Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (Topdog/Underdog, 2002). Set in the Civil War, the three-hour play is epic in its scope of a man’s journey to hopeful freedom, with some evident roots in Homer’s Odyssey but with Ms. Parks’ own take and touch on a story totally her own. Poetic, even lyrical language marks her script — delivered in the slow, southern sounds of a people enslaved but retaining their own ancient and homespun wisdom, dignity, and humor in the words they use.
Director Liz Diamond’s choices for pace, placement, and process in unfolding the three-part story of Hero are stunning. The movement is never rushed, with plenty of time for pauses and breaths of reflection. Yet, the first act’s one-hour, fifty minutes seem literally to fly by in a flash. Her brilliant cast clearly knows how to render this script in ways both to bring forth much laughter while to entice the audience to lean in so not to miss any line delivered. The director instructs that cast to turn from time to time to the audience and talk directly to us, helping us to be a party to their struggles, dilemmas, and decisions to be made. Eventually, along with Hero, theirs are risk-filled decisions whether to leave the plantation for possible but unsure freedom, with their still looking to the sky with those “L”-shaped hands to render if the timing is truly right or not.
James Udom is the Hero of Suzan-Lori Parks’ tale of his journey into the war that split a nation and leaves its mark still felt my men like him to this day. Hero is in many ways an Everyman who is clearly human in his needs, desires, and hopes but who also stands apart from others with a strength that they see but is not easy for them or us to define in words. That strength is seen in his contemplative gazes, his moments of evident inner calculation of choices, and his voice that has a timber of deep thought. But his Hero, as we and others will come to see, has flawed streaks, with grave consequences for him and for those he loves.
Mr. Udom is the thread that ties this tale’s three parts, and he holds us in rapt attention as we try, along with him, to discover when, how, and if his freedom as a black man will actually come. It is difficult not to shudder a bit when Hero asks while in the midst of the Civil War’s notorious Battle of the Wilderness, “But when freedom comes, and they stop me and I say ‘I’m on my own,’ … you think they’re not going to beat me?” His premonition of the African-American man’s plight one hundred fifty years later is haunting.
Surrounding Hero is a family of sorts that includes Homer, a mild-voiced man with eyes that speak volumes of a life hard but of a heart not yet hardened. Julian Elijah Martinez is the limping Homer, who lost part of one foot after trying to escape — a foot Hero was forced by the Colonel on the threat of death and the false promise of freedom to cut off.
|Eboni Flowers & James Udom|
When Hero does leave for the war, Homer remains as a companion to Penny, Hero’s live-in mate (with a name reminding us of the Greek Homer’s Penelope). Eboni Flowers is also an Everywoman in the way she bears so much of the burden for her man’s itch to leave for war and then the worry of wondering what has been his fate and if he will return. Like many women before her, her man changes in ways unexpected and without real compassion for how his new self will affect her. As her body goes limp with sorrow, as it rises in the fury of betrayal, and as it stands sadly but proudly in decisions of defiance, Ms. Flowers provides an arresting performance.
Dan Hiatt is man we quickly love to hate as the wily, wiry Colonel and slave-master who at times (and with enough whiskey) pretends to Hero that he holds him in regard like a son. But the Colonel can also quickly revert to the cruelty that has long been etched into his now weather-wrinkled skin. Another instance when the playwright’s script sends shivers down one’s spine is when the Colonel with no hesitation declares, “I am grateful every day that God made me white,” adding further, “The low [i.e., the black man] will always be lowly … And there is a kind of comfort in that.” In the context of today’s world and the leftover legacy of America’s history of slavery, this admission is sickening and in many respects, still true for too much of our society.
|Tom Pecinka & Dan Hiatt|
On the rocky, desolate battlefield of the Wilderness, the Colonel and Hero are joined by a young man, Smith, an injured prisoner in a wooden crate wearing the coat of a Yankee captain. Smith (Tom Pecinka) has been captured by the Colonel, with the Colonel hoping that he can use Smith to save him from being punished for leaving the ongoing battle in the background. Smith has secrets that are not at first obvious of his true nature. He will eventually offer a freedom-possible decision point for Hero, at which time the loyalty to a master cruel and untrustworthy proves too deeply engrained for Hero to give up the belief that a bargain made with this white devil is a bargain to be kept.
|Steven Anthony Jones & James Udom|
Steven Anthony Jones is “the oldest old man” and as such, is delightful in his homespun wisdom, sparkling eyes, and love the aged slave shows Hero as the story opens that first dawning morning. Chivas Michael, Rotima Agbabiaka, and Britney Frazier (in a role normally played by Safiya Fredericks) serve as a Greek Chorus of sorts in the third, homecoming part of the story as well as the faces of freedom sought at all costs. (They are also the kibitzing ‘bettors’ and friends of Hero in the first part, along with Gregory Wallace.)
|Gregory Wallace & Cast Members|
But Gregory Wallace in the end comes close to being the character that many audience members may longest remember. When Hero goes to war, he must do so without the dog everyone says brings Hero luck, a mutt named Odyssey (a name Ms. Parks teases us with more reference to the ancient Greek epic). As Penny and Homer await in the third part of the story to find out the fate of Hero, a fur-coated Odyssey with braided locks on his head flapping in all directions arrives yapping all the while in English. He brings much news, with Gregory Wallace peppering his human-sounding dialogue with the yep-yep, arf-arf sounds of a dog. Delivering his surprises and snippets of his own war-time observations, Mr. Wallace’s Odyssey is a mixture of stand-up comedian, country preacher, and an actor ready to upstage anyone who dares to challenge his time in the spotlight. In other words, he is fabulous!
|Martin Luther McCoy|
The stark set of Riccardo Hernández leaves no doubt that the Civil War period is one that left the world raped and raked bare while the pre-War life of a slave was just as desolate as the battlefields to come. What is glorious are the skies above that are lit in brilliant colors by Yi Zhao, whose lighting design also provides a desert -like starkness to the battleground of the second part and the scary flashes of warning that an army and its cannons are approaching (the latter aided in booms as part of Frederick Kennedy’s thunderous, heart-pounding sound design). Sarah Nietfeld’s costumes are a mixture of a time past and time close to now, reminding us of the leftover legacy this war still has on much of our population today. Providing his own powerful commentary, Martin Luther McCoy and his guitar sing the blues-noted songs and music by the playwright herself, with lines that give pause like “I have misplaced myself … I leave no trail.”
Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, III is a triumphant production by A.C.T. and Yale Repertory Theatre, one that breaks many rules in an epic-length evening, moving ever-so slowly without ever seeming to lag. In the end, we are reminded of the roots of the issues still often horrifyingly evident today for young, African-American men and of the frailties of their so-called freedom.
Rating: 5 E
Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II, III continue through May 20, 2018 at American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.
Photos by Joan Marcus
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