Something happens at the Public Theater in Father Comes Home from the Wars, that makes you feel the slaves on a plantation in the deep South at the dawn of the Civil War, are talking to you, directly to you, across time. Much of the language is distinctly modern, some of the nonverbal presentation, like the signature head-roll the substantial Tonye Patano gives us, feels like right now. But it is more than that.
With a MacArthur “genius” grant, not to mention a Pulitzer for drama, and a Tony already in her crowded C.V., you wouldn’t expect playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to serve up anything ordinary. So, when you settle in to your red-velvet seat in the Anspacher Theater, be prepared for a layered script, a polished cast, and —mirabile dictu! — a genuinely fresh take on slavery’s shameful burden.
First, there is the writer’s playfulness with language. She draws you in with clever phrasing–played for humor until you realize there’s nothing funny about it.
“I have misplaced myself,” says one of the slaves, theorizing about what he might say if caught running away. He is entertaining his friends, and us. Your smile fades. You are taken unaware by the tiered meanings you might draw from a slave saying such a thing. On the one hand, he is “shuckin’ & jivin’’’; on another, he shows us his–and likely every slave’s–internal conflict.
Jenny Jules (Penny) and Jeremie Harris (Homer) break our hearts with their yearning. They have the audience in the palm of their hands.
The trappings are all too familiar: the brutal master, the casual rape, the grim poverty, and the helplessness of the held. They are all there, crucial to the context, but tangential to the point. The meat of this story is in the slaves themselves, in their struggle. Are they complicit in their slavery? Do they have the courage to run, to rebel? If there is a boot on your throat what might be a noble path? And always, always lurking in the song lyrics and the short speeches, is the question “What do their decisions in 1863 dictate about now?”
There is poetry slipped to us as well; perhaps a reminder of the rhythmic gifts African slaves never surrendered. As a small group of runaways waits for the cover of night, they keep checking the sky. In a gentle chant, they remind one another: Not dark enough to jet, not yet, not yet.
The middle scene, just before the intermission, takes us to the wilderness of war. The white master is encamped with his loyal slave, Hero, (Sterling K. Brown) who has followed him to war on the promise of freedom in exchange for his service. There is a Union soldier, in the garb of a captain, in a rough cage as the scene begins. He is from a Yankee unit comprised of Negro soldiers.
The strutting master (Ken Marks) chews a bit of the scenery playing the entitled white man. He frames his world view succinctly: “I’m grateful God made me white.” The Yankee (Louis Cancelmi) is his foil, but is not given much to do.
And, “Hero” is, of course, anything but heroic. He gives his soul to his master. Even his dog is more self-possessed.
A well-worn show business adage warns actors never to work with scene-stealing children or dogs. The canon is silent on actors working with actors playing dogs. Enter Odyssey Dog. In the play’s earlier action, he is the long-sought runaway–much discussed but unseen. Near the finish, Jacob Ming-Trent, tricked out in a fuzzy, doglike coat, scampers on stage and all over the stage. He’s gleeful with canine hysteria, jumping, panting, leg-lifting — We are enchanted. Like Albee’s Seascape lizards, he talks. Odyssey Dog, having found his master, is returning from war (and yes, Parks gets enormous mileage out of all the master/owner tropes). From his entrance to the close, he is Greek chorus cum giddy pup, upstaging all who come near.
This play is very special.
Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1,2, & 3 – By Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by Jo Bonney.
WITH: Sterling K. Brown (Hero/Ulysses), Louis Cancelmi (Smith), Peter Jay Fernandez (Oldest Old Man), Jeremie Harris (Homer), Russell G. Jones Leader/Runaway), Jenny Jules (Penny), Ken Marks (Colonel) Jacob Ming-Trent (Fourth/Odyssey Dog), Tonye Patano (Third/Runaway), Julian Rozzell Jr. (Second/Runaway).
Designed by Neil Patel: costumes by Esosa, Lighting by Lap Chi Chu, Sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Steven Bargonetti is both music director and an on-set musician.
At The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan. Running time: two hours, fifty minutes including one intermission. Through November 16th.