Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) ***

On the basis of this first installment of Suzan-Lori Parks’s nine-part epic about the African-American experience from the mid-19th century to the present, now at the Public Theater, it is easy to understand why this highly original playwright won both a Pulitzer and a MacArthur grant. In “A Measure of a Man” Hero (Sterling K. Brown), a slave on a Texas plantation, must decide whether to follow his master to war in exchange for a promise of freedom. His wife Penny (Jenny Jules), his father figure The Oldest Old Man (Peter Jay Fernandez) and his oft-time rival Homer (Jeremie Harris) weigh in with their opinions and The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves make bets on his decision. Parks’s mashup of Greek drama, poetic language, anachronisms, music and humor somehow works. In “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the most naturalistic of the evening’s plays, we meet Hero’s master (Ken Marks), now a Confederate colonel, and the Union soldier he has captured (Louis Cancelmi). The two of them spar over the nature of slavery. The colonel is allowed to display a soft side and the captured soldier reveals a couple of surprises. Hero and the soldier find a common bond. In “The Union of My Confederate Parts” we return to the plantation many months later. Only Penny and Homer are left of the original slaves. Three runaway slaves who are hiding at the plantation try to persuade Homer to run off with them, but he is unwilling to leave Penny, who is tormented by nightmares about Hero. Word reaches the plantation that both the master and Hero are dead. However, Odyssey (Jacob Ming-Trent), Hero’s long lost dog, arrives and tells of Hero’s imminent return. When Hero, who has renamed himself Ulysses, arrives, he reveals previously unseen aspects of his character that are far from heroic. The question of what freedom costs remains open. Parks's incidental music and songs are beautifully performed by Steven Bargonetti. Jo Bonney’s direction is exemplary. The simple set by Neil Patel is effective and Esosa’s deliberately anachronistic costumes are a hoot. Parks proves that dealing with serious subjects can still leave lots of room to be entertaining. I hope the remaining six parts maintain the high level of these three. Running time: 3 hours, including one intermission.

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