Parks’ ‘Father’: Greek poetry meets the Civil War
CAMBRIDGE — I knew the time I spent translating Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” from the ancient Greek into English at B.C. High decades ago would come in handy someday.
It has with Suzan-Lori Parks’ new work, “Father Comes Home from The Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3,” at the American Repertory Theater.
Much of Parks’ work has been inspired by and frequently alludes to the two classic works by Homer mentioned above. They have proven familiar territory for playwrights, as some believe the ancient Greeks snapped all the available storylines in their time, and everybody else has been pretty much borrowing from them ever since.
But along with the influence of the ancient Greeks, Parks has also taken the liberty of inserting, among other things, modern day-slang; she has said in interviews she never intended her piece to be a historical document suitable for the History Channel, especially when you add in touches such as costume designer Esosa’s choice to outfit characters with cargo pants or Crocs.
The fourth wall also doesn’t exist, with interactions between characters and audience members sitting close to the stage, and Parks’ less-than-literal take means that a dog, charmingly played by a human, will provide key information in Part 3.
Director Jo Bonney has capably fleshed out Parks’ vision, and the entire cast is up to the task at hand.
Parks set her three-part play — which eventually be a nine-part epic — during the Civil War in the spring of 1862 at a modest Texas plantation. In Part 1, “The Measure of a Man,” the plantation is abuzz, with the slaves sitting outside their cabin wagering among themselves over the possibility that Hero the slave (Benton Greene) may go off to war with his boss master in hopes of obtaining his freedom.
It is a poison pill he will be taking, of course, if he does, fighting on the Confederate side against those fighting to free him and others such as him.
The quartet of “Less Than Desirable Slaves” will serve as a Greek chorus, if you will, wondering aloud whether they will all be whipped if Hero declines to go off to war, and how the decision will affect wife Penny (Jenny Jules) and the Oldest Old Man (Harold Surratt ), a father and advisor of sorts to Hero.
Even the choice of the name of the character Hero, it turns out, is loaded with irony as he has a bit of a history when it comes to an escape attempt by his fellow slave Homer (Sekou Laidlow), and a subsequent event which still haunts him, and colors his decision to go off to war.
Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” will take place a few months later, after Hero has made his decision, and accompanied his “boss-master,” a Colonel in the Confederate Army (Ken Marks), into a wooded area somewhere in the South between the Confederate and Union lines.
There’s more irony yet for Hero, because he is keeping guard over a captured white Union soldier named Smith (Michael Crane) who is an officer, as it turns out, in the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. He again finds himself at crosshairs with his own interests.
Parks has resisted the temptation to make The Colonel a cardboard cut-out. It is evident he has feelings — complicated ones, at that — about his slaves and muses about the day when Hero will be free.
Parks will explore the issue of loyalty vs. freedom — there comes a moment when Hero will make a decision concerning not only his freedom, but that of his captive.
Parks has a lot of fun with the Greek connection in Part 3, “The Union of my Confederate Parts,“ in many ways a mash-up of the concluding parts of Homer‘s “The Odyssey.” Homer and Penny, by the fall of 1863, have become a couple in Hero’s long absence and are ready to flee the plantation together, along with three other runaway slaves. (Charlie Hudson, III, Tonye Patano and Julian Rozzell, Jr.).
But Penny is loathe to leave without knowing Hero’s fate, and the entrance of Hero’s
dog Odd-See (a spot-on performance by Jacob Ming-Trent) , and the information he has to share, will update all about Hero’s survival, the Boss-Man’s death, and complicate matters even further.
When he does return, Hero has traded his slave name for another — Ulysses, which could be connected to the Union general Grant but is also the Latin equivalent of Odysseus, the hero of “The Odyssey” who was married to Penelope (nee Penny in this piece).
And while the slaves outwardly celebrate his return, it comes with so much baggage — even as Ulysses holds a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the symbol of the freedom to come — that his future happiness seems far from assured.
Parks is kind of one-stop shopping when it comes to her own work, writing the songs in “Father Comes Home” that are skillfully arranged and performed by Steven Bargonetti.
Parks has promised six more “parts” that will chronicle the African-American journey from slavery to the present day, much as the late August Wilson successfully built his “Century Cycle,” setting his plays decade by decade.
The sweeping, powerful, three-hour “Father” epic has stoked our appetite for more, and Parks has raised the possibility future characters may be descendants of the first piece.
It will be interesting to see where Parks goes from here, and whether she returns to the ART with subsequent works, much as Wilson made the Huntington his artistic home.
The American Repertory Theater and The Public Theater’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3.” Directed by Jo Bonney. Scenic design by Neil Patel. Costume design by Esosa. Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu. Sound designer/Music supervisor Dan Moses Schreier. At the Loeb Drama Center through March 1. http://www.americanrepertorytheater.org.