There are plays that seduce and anesthetize and candy-coat everything to make the world taste good. And then there are plays like Suzan-Lori Parks's three-part, three-hour 2014 drama Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3—long, complicated, intellectually teasing, hard-to-categorize works that riff on difficult issues and refuse to give expected, easy answers.
Set in the American south at the time of the Civil War, Parks's play focuses on the adventures of a slave as he serves his master, a colonel in the Confederate army. As the postmodernists would say, there are many competing narratives of what slave life was like in the antebellum south, ranging from the inane minstrel shows (happy-faced, childlike folk singing and dancing in the cotton fields) to the racist nostalgia of Gone With the Wind and its ilk to the overheated, antislavery propaganda of Uncle Tom's Cabin and the less melodramatic family history of Roots—and Parks, always the iconoclast, wants no part of any of them.
Or rather, she wants to show us a new way of looking at a world we thought we knew. In her early play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, she strapped a tiny camera on the back of a cockroach, which then gave us a roach's-eye tour of an inner-city apartment. In the current play she creates a story that resonates unexpectedly with other unrelated or tangentially related narratives.
Father Comes Home From the Wars is steeped in references to Greek drama and literature. The play's structure echoes Aeschylus's Oresteia—three short connected plays (Part 1, A Measure of a Man; Part 2,The Battle in the Wilderness; and Part 3, The Union of My Confederate Parts) that portray moments in a larger, not fully dramatized epic. Like the Greek dramatists, Parks uses a chorus to provide exposition or to comment on the action, though in her play the members of the chorus are also slaves ("The Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves"). And Homer, too, is very present in the play, in the hero—called Hero in the first two plays and Ulysses in the last—who goes to war and then returns home, in the faithful woman (Penny) who waits for him, and in, in a po-mo touch, a character named Homer, though, ironically, he is neither blind nor a storyteller.
The last part of the play is in many ways a retelling of Ulysses's return home in The Odyssey, though Parks plays with the story a bit. In her version, Ulysses's dalliance with Calypso has resulted in a child, and in an impediment to his reunion with Penny. Also, Ulysses's faithful dog, Argos, has a larger role in Parks's play (in The Odyssey, he merely recognizes his old master and then dies).
It appears at first glance like Parks is drawing a parallel between the Trojan War and the American Civil War, but really the comparison she is making is not between the two wars—which were started differently and ended differently—but between the effect of both wars on the survivors. The characters in both Aeschylus's Oresteia and Homer'sOdyssey suffer a kind of PTSD, as do the characters in Father Comes Home From the Wars. Likewise, reverberations from both the Trojan War and the Civil War continued to shake history long after the fighting ended.
By bringing in allusions to works about the Trojan War, Parks also shakes up the audience, forcing us to look with new eyes at a war and a world we think we knew already. She doesn't just want to say slavery is bad or that the Civil War was hell, she wants to show us their full effects—the way they distorted and damaged lives, and the ways the patterns of slavery live on in our own still-wounded culture and in our unequal justice system, which seems designed to incarcerate and disenfranchise more African-Americans than whites—a point made by costuming the slaves in orange prison jumpsuits.
Parks also wants to show us how the influence of African culture and, by extension, slave culture on American life runs deeper than is often supposed: the banjo appears twice in the show, once in its African form and once in the more familiar iteration first popularized in minstrel shows. It's a tiny detail but a powerful one, in a play full of tiny, powerful details. When the African banjo appears, it is owned and used by slaves. When the Americanized banjo appear, it is owned by a white slaveholder, Hero's master. The banjo stands in for the slaves. Like them it has been appropriated by white society; Hero's owner plays the banjo at the same time he toys with Hero, making promises he will never deliver on.
The performances are universally strong; every gesture and glance add to the whole. Kamal Angelo Bolden and Almé Donna Kelly are particularly compelling as Ulysses and Penny, and BrittneyLove Smith is very winning as the faithful dog. v