‘Father Comes Home from the Wars’ at Yale Rep Demands a Lot but Delivers
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks—the first triptych in the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s new “up to 12-part” American Odyssey that takes place over the span of the Civil War—is a play of mythic proportions (in length), as well as mythical references.
Running more than three hours, there is no intermission until the conclusion of Parts 1 and 2—one hour and 50 minutes into the production.
Although the play demands a lot of its audience, it’s well worth it to experience this important, ambitious, imaginative work that asks the big questions while keeping the answers nuanced: The characters’ unique personalities and experiences are not trumped by the playwright’s larger socio-political messages. The cast of 12 is consistently strong and Parks’s multi-layered storyline is vividly brought to life under Liz Diamond’s adept direction.
Set in 1862, “Part 1: A Measure of a Man” begins with a group of slaves gathered around a slave cabin in a desolate field in far West Texas. They are taking bets on whether Hero (James Udom), one of their own, will go to The War. The question is simply stated, but the answer is complex and loaded with moral dilemmas. If Hero goes, the boss-master/Colonel (Dan Hiatt) promises to grant him his freedom. But in doing so, Hero takes up arms against the Union soldiers fighting for the larger cause of abolishing slavery. Udom gives a heartfelt performance as the pivotal character, navigating between being the Hero of his people and the tragic Hero.
Eboni Flowers gives an impassioned performance as Penny, Hero’s lover, and Julian Elijah Martinez is measured and thoughtful as both Homer’s rival for Penny and the thorn in Hero’s side that makes him face his life choices.
Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, and Erron Crawford, led by Chivas Michael, make up a well-orchestrated Greek chorus of sorts and Steven Anthony Jones as The Oldest Old Man is well suited as Hero’s father figure/mentor.
In “Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness,” Hero has made the decision to go to war with the Colonel and they are holding Smith, a Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) captive in a small cage in a wooded area in the South. Hiatt is appropriately soul-less as the slave master/Colonel, arrogantly stating, “No matter how I fail, I will always be white.” Pecinka humanizes the role of the soldier in war against his fellow Americans in a moving exchange between himself and Hero.
“Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts” brings the play together on some levels while leaving other aspects ambiguous. Hero’s runaway dog, Odyssey, makes his first appearance. In a curly fur jacket, Gregory Wallace steals the show as the wise, endearing, and very funny canine.
Hero, now referred to as Ulysses, having completed his Odyssey, returns home to Penny. Having assumed him dead, Penny is about to run off with Homer—but Hero has a new wife he’s bringing home to live with them.
This seems like a distracting new plot twist when the more resonating focus of this final act is on the slaves preparing to run away (actors who played the “Greek chorus” in Part I). In a poignant scene, like kidnap victims with Stockholm syndrome, they procrastinate about leaving, insisting it’s not dark enough yet, although nothing is there to stop them.
In the playwright’s lovely poetic language, the Second Runaway (Rotimi Agbabiaka) asks: “But where is freedom really? Will the air smell sweet? Will the streets be paved with gold? Will all in Freedomville welcome me with open arms? Will there be food? Will there be a bed to lay my Freedom Head?”
Pulling the production together with harmonic grace is Martin Luther McCoy, opening each part and concluding the play strumming guitar and singing exquisite tunes—also written by the multi-talented Parks.
The spare sets by Riccardo Hernandez are all that’s required to set the tone that the action is all taking place in the middle of nowhere, enhanced by lighting designer Yi Zhao’s flat, horizon-less skies. Sarah Nietfeld’s drab, earth-toned costumes emphasize the idea of slaves camouflaged, unseen, staying in their places.
Throughout the play, Parks asks us as to examine the price of freedom and think deeply about who we grant it to, and under what circumstances, and why some people are allowed to play God—or the Devil—with other people’s lives. It will be very interesting to see where this gifted playwright takes us next on her epic American journey.
Amy J. Barry has been writing about Connecticut professional theater for more than 25 years. She is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. (ctcritics.org).
Performances of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 continue at Yale Rep’s University Theatre (222 York Street) through Saturday, April 7. Tickets are available online at yalerep.org or by phone at 203-432-1234. The play is a co-production with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, where it will play April 25 to May 20.