Suzan-Lori Parks’ stunning new drama, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), is that rare work of art: one that bears the heavy burden of its subject matter—the peculiar institution of American slavery—but that carries it lightly. (The nearly three-hour production runs through Nov. 16 at the Public Theater.)
The central figure is the aptly named Hero (Sterling K. Brown), the favored slave on his Southern plantation who’s been asked to join his master (Ken Marks) to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. The fact that he’s been given a choice in the matter, and the dubious promise of freedom from bondage if he agrees, makes the matter all the more serious to him. And to his fellow slaves, who begin to wager on what he will decide to do.
In the second act, Hero finds himself on the road with his boss-master and a Union captive (Louis Cancelmi), who offers another shading to the mid-19th-century African American experience and the pretzel-like moral compromises that often result. The Union soldier, too, offers Hero a potential path to freedom, one that has its own risks and burdens.
Parks returns to the plantation in the final act, a kind of bitter homecoming to which she brings the full force of her dramatic power. She both elevates her themes with echoes of classic literature—it’s no accident that Hero’s sweetheart is named Penny (Jenny Jules) and his loyal dog Odyssey—while at the same time doubling down on comedy, in the form of that truth-telling Odyssey Dog (played with unleashed canine comic brio by Jacob Ming-Trent).
Throughout the three plays, which are conceived as the first trilogy in a longer nine-play cycle that will eventually move into the present day, Parks establishes a natural, sometimes anachronistic language for her characters (”True that,” one says). It’s a straddling of two worlds that is reinforced by Jo Bonney’s staging, with its deployment of hand-signal greetings, and ESosa’s costumes, which evoke a plantation wear but with henleys and high-tops. This is serious work that is serious entertaining. A