Monday, April 25, 2016
Douglas Meserli "Leap of Faith" (on Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, 2 & 3)
leap of faith
by Douglas Messerli
Suzan-Lori Parks Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part I, 2 & 3 / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum / the performance I attended the matinee performance on Sunday, April 24, 2016
Others are determined to attempt another escape, particularly given the fact that the Colonel is now leaving. Homer is of two minds, having been so painfully punished for his last attempt, and Penny (presumably a reference to the faithful Penelope) is determined to remain in the one-room shack until her lover, Hero returns from the war.
If the first act serves mostly as a disquisition about faith and disbelief, the second act represents the terrors of war itself, where Colonel and his servant Hero, now lost, have caged up a Yankee captain, eager to take him back to the front line with them as protection against retaliation for their having wandered away from the troop. Colonel not only maltreats his new captive, but continue his degradation of Hero, demanding he shine up both their boots, run for wood, and cooks their dinner, among many other demands.
Meanwhile, he taunts the captain, unable to comprehend how he could not want possibly to have his own slave—if only for a day. In a long interchange he insists that the Captain, in return for his freedom, precisely estimate the worth of Hero in dollars and cents. (He paid $800, although all agree that Hero’s worth has perhaps increased some over the years).
As the sounds of warfare come closer and Hero reports having seen a large massing of Northern troops along with a smaller grouping of Rebels, the Colonel goes off to check for himself the lay of the land.
Hero, temporarily releasing the Captain (Josh Wingate), asks him to explain why he wears two blue coats, the second belonging to a private, underneath his slightly larger Captain’s top coat. At first we might suspect that, a bit like in the book and film Brokeback Mountain, it may represent a sexual friendship with the now-dead private. But we soon discover that Smith himself is the private, who has stolen the dead Captain’s coat just to keep warm, and that, moreover, he is actually a black who is light-skinned enough to “pass.” Yet, the relationship between the black private and the white captain is maintained even in the image of the borrowed coat.
For all its racial (and sexual) commentary, however, Parks’ play is not only about race; and even the noble Hero, returning from the war without having ever been freed by the Colonel, but carrying with him presents for the others, including the Emancipation Proclamation, is ultimately himself a traitor. Although Penny has bedded with Homer through the years of the war, she has remained “true” in her heart to Hero, who has now renamed himself Ulysses.
The world Ulysses discovers upon his return, however, is now filled with runaway slaves, fearful of being given away even by those who lovingly put them up for the night. Well should they be, for although Penny has remained true and Hero has protected and loved her, Ulysses finally reveals he has married another woman—apparently in order to have offspring. He does not know that his Penny might herself have produced a child, and is now pregnant with what appears to be Homer’s offspring—which, symbolically of course, makes us have to question whether it is a real or imaginary child.
Throughout both Homer and Penny have stayed on mostly as testimony of their love and admiration for Hero/Ulysses, but given Ulysses’ new unsympathetic guise—he is intent on keeping both Penny and his new wife in the same confines of this one-room cabin—Penny finally turns on him, particularly when, out of jealousy he attempts to murder Homer, whose life she saves.
Beyond the metaphoric considerations of these relationships between the creator and created, we have the simple problematic of what, in that creation, the hero has finally become. Over all these years of living so intensely in his love-hate relationship with the Colonel, Ulysses has, in fact, become a man closer to the Colonel than to the others attempting to escape a world from which, with emancipation, they need no longer run from.
In fact, Parks’ central concern is trying to discern what her men and women really mean by freedom. Ulysses, finally, cannot comprehend his worth without a price upon his head. The others can only imagine it as a somehow better place, even though we know that the hardships they will have face will be, in some cases as bad or even worse than those they have previously suffered in the South. The North to which they plan to run will be as uncomprehending, if not more, than the world from which they have run. If they escape to Chicago, for example, what conditions might generations after them endure?
In the end—the last act is titled, “The Union of My Confederate Parts—Ulysses stays on in the South, more confederated with the soon to be Black Crow world than perhaps any of the remaining whites. By seeking his freedom through subservience, he has become a endless slave to the brutal past.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, particularly when you are an engaging writer like Parks. But it will be interesting where she takes this epic work in its later parts. Indeed, in these first three sections, there is strangely enough no father nor child as yet to come home to. Parks has described this play as being a testament to her professional military father’s involvement in wars and “rehearsals for war” as she was growing up as a child; perhaps in the later chapters we may see how these Civil War figures prefigured her more radically-conceived contemporary life.
Los Angeles, April 25, 2016