NY Theater Review by Samuel L. Leiter
When reviewers say a show is “ambitious,” they usually mean it has attempted something highly challenging, but that, despite its satisfying features, it has not reached its goal. In that sense, Jo Bonney’s two-hour, fifty-minute production of Pulitzer and Tony-winning dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks’ Civil War trilogy, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), workshopped in the Public Lab, is ambitious.
Trilogies originated with the Greeks, which is appropriate for this play—which has one intermission—inspired by The Odyssey. The hero is Hero (Sterling K. Brown), who later calls himself Ulysses (as per Gen. Grant); Penny (Jenny Jules), the patient Penelope figure, is his wife; Homer (Jeremie Harris), a slave whose foot was severed by Hero after he tried to run away, sleeps with Penny in Hero’s absence; and Odyssey (pronounced Odd-see) is Hero’s faithful dog (remember Ulysses’ Argos?), a talking one at that. Much here is fable-like, with Parks’ special poetic tone, bluesy music—mainly in Parts 1 and 2—from an onstage guitarist (Steven Bargonetti), and heightened acting, including anachronistic fist-bumping and talking to the audience.
Part 1 has a childlike simplicity, Part 2 is realistic, and, Part 3, with the entrance of the garrulous dog, leaps amusingly but uncomfortably into fantasy (or magic realism, if you like). The slaves’ costumes, designed by Esosa, mingle period and modern elements (sneakers, hoodies, and so forth), perhaps meant to enhance the play’s universal qualities but muddling its historical ones. Neil Patel’s three-quarter round set is functional: a sloping upstage rampway backing a simple slaves’ shack in Parts 1 and 3 that flies upward to hover over an open space in a forest in Part 2.
Part 1 (“A Measure of a Man”) takes place in 1862 on a Texas plantation, where Hero debates whether to accompany his Boss-Master to the Civil War. The Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves—more like pleasant old folks at home than the wretched characters in Twelve Years a Slave—wager on what his choice will be (as if a slave would have an option). Hero, worried over Odd-see’s disappearance, listens to the conflicting advice of those closest to him. Boss-Master has promised Hero his freedom if he goes, but Boss-Master cannot be trusted. Either way, Hero faces a dead end, and he thinks running away is stealing.
Freedom is the play’s watchword, but, in the rather static Part 1, beyond introducing the ironic idea of a black slave in Confederate gray serving the army keeping him in chains, Parks does little with it. (Hero is not a soldier, by the way; the rebel army waited until 1865 to militarize slaves, a subject worthy of its own play.)
The freedom theme is better handled in Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” set in late summer, 1862. Hero’s master, the Colonel (Ken Marks), lost “pretty much in the middle of nowhere,” converses with Smith (Louis Cancelmi), a wounded Union captain (or so the Colonel thinks) he has captured and confined. Smith presumably commands the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry; this was the Northern army’s initial black regiment, which online sources say was formed in the fall of 1862, after the scene shown here. With both Smith and Hero deprived of their liberty, freedom-related issues emerge, including the poignant question of what Hero will do once he is released from slavery.
Themes of fidelity surface in Part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” set on the plantation in fall 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation (whose existence is mentioned). Homer and Penny have been cohabiting but Homer considers fleeing with a group of runaway slaves. Broad humor appears in the shape of the faithful canine, Odd-see, speaking a mile a minute in Jacob Ming-Trent’s hilarious performance; delicious as it is, though, it seems oddly out of place, like sushi served with burgers, especially when Hero (now Ulysses) returns, bringing domestic melodrama in his wake.
Father Comes Home ends in a somewhat indeterminate way, probably because it is the opening salvo in a nine-play cycle. Although well-staged and acted, it feels overlong and its familiar themes lack a particularly fresh perspective. Hopefully, Parts 4-9 will raise the stakes.
Father Comes Home, Parts 1, 2 & 3 will be going to LAB this January.
The Public Theater 425 Lafayette Street New York, NY 10003 General Info: 212.539.8500 Taub Box Office: 212.967.7555 (10am – 7pm M-SA, Noon – 6pm SU) Through November 16