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
Suzan-Lori Parks’ most recent play, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, 2 & 3 begins with a huge Kierkegaardian leap of faith. Although slave Hero (Sterling K. Brown) has been previously betrayed by his owner, Colonel (Michael McKean)—he had been told that he would receive his freedom if he cut off the foot of runaway slave Homer (Larry Powell)—he takes a chance in believing that if he follows the Colonel into the Civil War on the Rebel side, he will finally be given his freedom when they return home.
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.
So begins a play that in three acts explores the inter-dependency of blacks and whites in a sometimes quite brilliant mini-epic (the play runs for nearly 3 hours) that includes a musical score, also composed by Parks, performed by musician Steven Bargonetti.
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).
The inability of this self-congratulatory narcissist to comprehend anything about others, reveals just how different is his world from the Yankee soldier’s world, and, perhaps more importantly, just how dependent he is upon Hero and his other six slaves, who have allowed him to rise into modest stature—vainly exaggerated by his placement, from time to time, of a huge white plume into his hat, absurdly reminding us of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
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.
The fact that the director (Jo Bonney) and the playwright employ a white man to perform this role further drives home one of the works major themes: that the differences between the two races is a thing of the mind rather than anything else. Indeed, Hero throughout shows himself as having more nobility and intelligence than the Colonel might ever achieve. Ordered to follow along after the Colonel with the neck of the new “slave” encircled with a rope, Homer releases Smith and tells him to run, while he stays on to serve, secretly placing the blue coat beneath his rebel one, wherein his connection with the now runaway Northern black man remains throughout the rest of the war.
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.
Charles McNaulty, writing in the Los Angeles Times described Parks’ work as involving a great many postmodern riffs; but, in fact, her play—although easily moving between more formal and colloquial language, and containing a highly comic interlude in which Ulysses’ dog Odd-See describes her version of events (a little too cute for my taste)—is a far more old-fashioned modernist work of lost faith, misunderstanding, guilt, and remorse.
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