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Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
American Repertory Theatre

Also see Nancy's review of Motown The Musical

Jacob Ming-Trent, Jenny Jules, Julian Rozzell Jr., Harold Surratt, Benton Greene, Tonye Patano, and Sekou Laidlow
The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge continues its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks' new trilogy, Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), a co-production with The Public Theater in New York. Inspired by Homer's Odyssey, it centers on Hero, a slave who journeys from his plantation in Texas to the battleground and back again, to face a changed world as a changed man. Incorporating themes of love and betrayal, the price of freedom, and the worth of a man, the ambitious play offers insight into conditions for slaves in 1862 on the cusp of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Part 1: A Measure of a Man introduces a quartet of slaves (Charlie Hudson III, Julian Rozzell Jr., Tonye Patano, Jacob Ming-Trent) and The Oldest Old Man (Harold Surratt) making wagers on whether or not Hero (Benton Greene) will follow their master to war. As an enticement, the Colonel has promised to free him, but it isn't an easy choice. How do you reconcile putting on the uniform of the side that is fighting against your own cause? Can the master be trusted to keep his word? Or is freedom something that you take for yourself by running away? Hero's friend Homer (Sekou Laidlow) took that path and got caught, suffering the loss of his foot as penalty. Hero's father figure, the Old Man, seems to favor his taking the opportunity, while his common-law wife Penny (Jenny Jules) discourages him from leaving. Conflicted though he is by the decision, personal information is revealed that leaves him with no alternative.

Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness finds the Confederate Colonel (Ken Marks) in a makeshift camp in command of Hero and Smith (Michael Crane), a captive wounded Union soldier. The disparity between the opposing sides is clearly felt in this act, with the Colonel goading the Captain, trying to get him to admit to wanting to own a slave, and humiliating Hero in a variety of ways. The prisoner holds his moral high ground, despite his physical disadvantages, and eventually connects with Hero on a human level. During their discussions, Hero begins to examine his worth as a slave versus what might happen when he owns himself.

Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts takes us back to the Texas plantation in 1863, where Homer and Penny are harboring a trio of runaway slaves (Hudson, Patano, Rozzell) and waiting for news of Hero. Although they have settled into a quasi-coupling with each other (Homer is in love with Penny), she is emotionally faithful to Hero. The runaways convince Homer to go with them, to leave Penny and guide them on their journey, but news from the front changes the circumstances. Hero's talking dog Odyssey (played by Ming-Trent in a shaggy dog costume) returns to tell the long stories of both master and Hero, setting the stage for the latter (now calling himself Ulysses) to appear and affect the choices of the others.

Music is a crucial element of the play, and Steve Bargonetti, as a troubadour with guitar and banjo, sings Parks' compositions as the audience files in and as segues between acts. In a cinematic touch, he also underscores moments in the play, giving greater texture to some scenes. Additional texture comes from lighting designer Lap Chi Chu, with levels of brightness marking time of day and varying hues of amber evoking warm temperatures. Sound designer Dan Moses Schreier authentically recreates the booming cannons on the distant battlefield. The slaves' modest clapboard cabin is the centerpiece of Neil Patel's set, its porch dotted with a couple of chairs, and a long, sloped ramp upstage serves as the means for entrance and exit. For Part 2, the cabin ascends to reveal the meager camp and the enclosure for the captive. In harmony with Parks' mix of classic and contemporary language, Esosa's costume designs mash up historically correct attire with anachronistic modern features, such as Crocs, sneakers and a fanny pack.

All of the parts are successfully intertwined under the skilled direction of Jo Bonney. The cast is a tight ensemble, seamlessly portraying their characters and staying on track, even as they consistently break the fourth wall and make eye contact with individuals in the audience. With the playwright's penchant for infusing her writing with rhythm, each of the actors speaks with an identifiable cadence, the most entertaining and lively of which is the anthropomorphized Odyssey. As historical drama, Father Comes Home From The Wars looks at difficult questions through one conflicted man's experiences. However, viewing those same questions through a contemporary lens drives home exactly how compelling they remain.

Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), performances through March 1, 2015, at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or A co-production with The Public Theater.

Written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Directed by Jo Bonney; Scenic Designer, Neil Patel; Costume Designer, Esosa; Lighting Designer, Lap Chi Chu; Sound Designer/Music Supervisor, Dan Moses Schreier; Music Director, Steven Bargonetti; Songs and Additional Music by Suzan-Lori Parks; Hair, Wig and Makeup Designers, Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas; Fight Director, Thomas Schall; Production Stage Manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock

Cast (in order of appearance): Charlie Hudson III, Julian Rozzell Jr., Tonye Patano, Jacob Ming-Trent, Patrena Murray, Harold Surratt, Benton Greene, Jenny Jules, Sekou Laidlow, Ken Marks, Michael Crane; Music arranged and performed by Steven Bargonetti

Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

- Nancy Grossman

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