Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home From the Wars is a modern day riff on the tales of Homer and deals in big pictures issues – racism, sexism, white patriarchy, integrity – with an insightful and poetic intensity that is unique. Jo Bonney’s production sometimes seems at odds with the text and the dramatic and emotional highs promised by the text are never really achieved. Nevertheless, and even at three hours in length, this is an absorbing and provocative night in the theatre.
Smith: This world is such a mess. How’s a Colored gonna make his way? Seems like we either get sold off by somebody or sell out our ownselves. You could be bought and sold and so could I.
Hero: That’ll end with Freedom.
Smith: But what if it don’t somehow? Sometimes I get the feeling that the heart of the thing won’t change easy or quick. Cause of the way we were bought and brought over here in the first place. Maybe even with Freedom, that mark, huh, that mark of the marketplace, it will always be on us. And so maybe we will always be twisting and turning ourselves into something that is going to be the best price. That’s the way we were born into this, so is it always gonna be like that for us, slavery or not? Freedom or not? Are we ever going to get us a better place in the marketplace?
Set in 1862, during America’s bitter Civil War, Father Comes Home From the Wars, now playing at the Royal Court, is as close as it comes to a radical modern take on Greek tragedy. Suzan-Lori Parks’ script dances with form and structure familiar from masterpieces like Oedipus and Medea: war is in the air; a chorus provides insight and history; personal struggles make resonant issues which have more universal application; moments of great violence are juxtaposed against moments of intense emotion.
Not content with that, Parks adds other elements which feel more Shakespearean: a balladeer watches on and occasionally augments the drama with folk songs/ballads which have “something to say” about the narrative; a dog, aptly named Odyssey, speaks with a philosopher’s nuance in a Fool/Jester kind of way.
The overall result is unique. Part vaudeville, part historical tragedy, part kitchen sink drama, part love story, part state-of-the-nation critique and part anguished cry for change, Father Comes Home From the Wars bristles with possibility.
This production is directed by Jo Bonney who was responsible for the original, much lauded, production at New York’s Public Theater. Neil Patel, designer of that production, is again responsible for the set here while Emilio Sosa designed the costumes. The look and feel of the visuals suggests that dual world between period and modern dress – that limbo state that seems so attractive to directors these days but which, really, does nothing to enhance the narrative.
This sense of lost time is particularly pointless here. Yes, Parks’ point is that the concerns of the black men and women facing freedom from slavery still prevail in the thinking and souls of black Americans today, and that white Americans have not progressed much, but the language and the fate of the characters is eminently sufficient to convey that message. Partly modern clothing does not make the words and situations more or less relevant.
Nor is there any point to the argument that 2016 audiences will relate better to the powerful underlying messages if they are not presented by people wearing strictly period costumes. At least in the case of this play, where the language is so accessible and, quite often, formally lyrical, period costumes would help underline the timeless quality – and the modernity – of the philosophical and intellectual concerns.
Parks’ writing has a clear structure, a repetitiveness which is deceptively complex. In the first Act, in the ever-decreasing time before sunrise, a “family” of slaves debate and discuss whether or not Hero, one of their number, will stay on the plantation or go to war with his Master (as the Master has requested). In the second Act, in the ever-decreasing time before armed forces arrive, Hero debates whether to serve or run. In the final Act, in the ever-decreasing time before the sun sets and fleeing is practicable, what remains of Hero’s “family” debate whether they will stay on the plantation or flee.
Freedom is central to everything in Father Comes Home From the Wars. Odyssey, the dog, is the first to strike out for freedom, running away from his master following an uncharacteristic act of violence. Or so it seems.
As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Homer sought Freedom first, running away from his capricious master some time in the past, only to be recaptured. Hero was offered his Freedom then if he would chop off Homer’s foot as part penalty. Hero refused, but when faced with the ultimate Freedom, Death, opted to do the horrific act and save his life.
In every Act, Hero faces options which lead to different Freedoms – not just for him but for others whose lives are impacted by his choices – and he and the audience come to understand that Freedom is ephemeral.
Attaining Freedom is one thing – being free, in your own eyes or in the eyes of others, is another matter entirely.
While Parks’ writing is consistently beautiful, involving and insightful, neither the performances nor Bonney’s directorial vision match it. There is nothing silly or ridiculous about the themes or issues Parks dissects, but the manner of presentation here occasionally drifts into pantomime. Despite the deadly seriousness of some incidents involving knives or guns, the audience laughed – possibly as a release of tension, but more likely because the playing seemed to be funny.
There is not enough committed gravitas to key performances, especially from John Stahl’s Colonel who seems straight from a cartoon. Jimmy Akingbola does not seem scarred enough by the amputation of his foot (and he forgets that he is disabled from time to time) and Steve Toussaint’s Hero, while mostly admirable, does not convince in the moments of brutal savagery which occur in each Act and which should take away the breath of any onlooker.
All of this seems to be more about Bonney’s choices than any fault in the actors. The quieter second Act works the best, anchored by a very committed and astute performance from Tom Bateman as the wounded Yankee, Smith, the captive of the Colonel.
The ebb and flow of the dialogue between Smith and Hero is the most compelling part of the evening – because it is direct, played straight and tough. There are no comedy additions to distract from the gravity of the unspooling that Smith initiates in Hero. Bateman is gravelly and sincere as Smith, the captive with a conscience and a secret, and Toussaint gives his best work in the critical exchanges with Bateman.
With a better Colonel, one that emphasised the ingrained nobility and patriarchal certainty of the man while also permitting a Colonel Sanders sensibility to discombobulate, this section of the play would be scorching.
This is a major work from Parks but it deserves a tighter, more vicious production than Bonney here provides. But the lasting image of downtrodden black men, trudging along a road – in both directions – sadly and solemnly, will stay in the mind for some time.