In 2009, award-winning Jo Bonney directed award-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks first triptych from this proposed 9-play cycle – Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 8 & 9*, as part of a Public LAB production. Parks played the role of balladeer and guide through her multimedia epic tale about the psychology of slavery and freedom, the 1861-65 American Civil War and the burden of family in such circumstances.
In 2009, Part I “The Union of My Confederate Parts” was the story of Penny, a slave, awaiting her husband’s return from the war, while resisting the temptation to flee with a band of runaway slaves. Parts 8 “The Way We Live Now” and 9 “In Between The Wars”, were set in the present day, following a Poet-General struggling with the reality of his impending death while he plans his annual celebration for the army troops. It ran for 23 days to critical acclaim.
Parks went on to write two prequels to the original part 1, and created Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, which premiered under Bonney’s direction, in New York in 2014 to continued critical acclaim in non-stop productions around the USA since. 2009’s part 1 must have formed at least the basis for 2014’s part 3. It is this version which transferred overseas (including Neil Patel’s design) and received its UK premiere at the Jerwood Downstairs.
Presented as an odyssey across a trilogy of short plays, Parks explores the same themes, beginning not long after the outbreak of war, in a style partially influenced by the Greek tragedies, Brecht and regional folk tales. Steven Bargonetti and his blues guitar (and occasional banjo) replace Parks as our balladeering guide, performing atmospheric musical introductions and interludes, also written by Parks. One particularly powerful theme pulling all three pieces together is the worth of a slave seen through different eyes, including the self and, unexpectedly, other slaves.
Part I, “The Measure of a Man,” opens in West Texas, 1862. Hero (Steve Toussaint, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, 2010), a slave, is promised his freedom if he follows his owner when he joins the Confederate army as a Colonel. We meet his ‘family’ the night before departure, discussing whether he will go or stay. Leader (Sibusiso Mamba, Wah Wah, 2005); Second (Jason Pennycooke, Memphis The Musical); Third (Sarah Niles, Catastrophe 2015); and Fourth (Dex Lee, Hairspray The Musical Tour, 2015) wager their most precious possessions on what they think Hero will do. They weigh up his love for his ‘almost-wife’ Penny (Nadine Marshall, Second Coming, 2014) and the fact that he has kicked his cross-eyed dog Odyssey (Odd-See), widely regarded as his luck, but has run off. We then meet The Oldest Old Man (Leo Wringer, National Theatre Live: As You Like It, 2016) and Penny, both of whom try to persuade Hero this way and that.
We imagine Hero through their eyes – a strong, ‘perfect’ man whom they all admire. But, even as we meet him, we can’t be sure that he is all that they believe him to be. Then, we meet Homer (Jimmy Akingbola), rendered lame from a long-amputated foot for an attempted runaway, who arrives to explain the reality of Hero’s situation. After some back and forth, Hero thinks maybe he should go, particularly because he doesn’t want freedom the way Homer tried to take it – by running. “I’m worth something. So, me running off would be like stealing.” Homer is astonished, since the Master has already broken his promise of freedom twice before – both times surrounding Homer’s bid for liberty. We all learn a few truths about Hero and can only hope that his journey will be epic in the right way.
Part II, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” is the segment that has garnered the most praise to date. Here, Hero and the Colonel (John Stahl, seen for the first time) have become separated from their unit with the prize of a wounded Union Captain – Smith (Tom Bateman) from a ‘coloured’ infantry division. The Colonel draws Smith into philosophical debate about the power of owning slaves. For reasons that later emerge, Smith will never be swayed to agree. The Colonel gives a disturbing but honest monologue of why he is thankful to be white, and lapses into emotion, as he admits that he would miss Hero, should he be freed. Left alone with Hero, Smith tries to explain the opportunities of freedom, and they enter into a philosophical debate. Hero struggles with his own self-worth if not validated by his slave price tag. “Seems like the worth of a coloured man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave,” he says. In a moment of pure resonance, he also asks Smith about a free life should the Unionists prevail, “When a Patroller comes up to me, when I say, I’m my own and I own my own self, you think they’ll leave me be?” In the absence of his owner, and after an unforeseen twist in the narrative, Hero commits his one truly heroic act.
Part III, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” depicts Hero’s return to Penny and Homer, who are being urged by 3 runaway slaves (Mamba, Pennycooke and Niles) to join them. Unexpected Messenger Odyssey (Dex Lee) arrives to (literally) tell them all that, having found Hero on the road to war, stayed with him, and has now run on ahead to warn the others that Hero is coming home. A lot has changed on the plantation. Hero has changed too, and it forces a confrontation with the unswerving Homer who, as ever, has stayed true to himself.
So, after three hours (plus interval), Parts 1, 2 & 3 conclude. In terms of performance, Bonney has an ensemble of British acting excellence. However, in her production notes, Parks warns that she widely employs the convention of direct address to the audience, and Bonney follows faithfully. This means that, in addition to the supporting slaves providing the ‘Greek Chorus’, the main slave characters also address the audience, whether in thought or dialogue. This tends to drain them of their dramatic power, as the flow and energy before us is constantly interrupted and the character addressees are rendered almost inanimate. Particular standouts were Marshall and Akingbola (and Stahl), mostly perhaps, because these were the two characters who were allowed interact and… act. This might also be why part 2 is the most often praised – there is more interaction between characters.
Parks is known for the way she experiments with language and dialect, and for her style of literary deconstruction. She uses modern idioms and cultural vernacular, which seems to tie in with Emilio Sosa’s contemporary costumes (including crocs and trainers…) Parks also likes to ‘let the words hold the emotion’. But, as virtually all talk, this play pays minute attention to hers at the expense of action and, at times, emotion, all restricted by asides and direct audience addresses. Constant use of fourth wall-breaking verse and choral exposition, for me, suggested an odd sort of self- confidence and was possibly at the expense of an engaging reality. Even as a British audience, we know that such conversations between slaves were intimate and dangerous. There is no suggestion of this here outside of Part 2, as Hero fears his owner’s return.
Considering the current context this production is placed in, this is important. In the 2 years since its premiere, the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up momentum against the recurring nightmare of innocent black men and women being brutalised and murdered by people in authority. The mood of the African Diaspora has shifted socially and perhaps artistically. In the UK at least, we are in the midst of claiming visibility for our unseen lives in the Arts. We want our truth to be out there. We want relatable characters and stories recognisable as ours. We are only just beginning to make headway, so despite Parks making direct reference to the legacy of modern SUS laws and police brutality, her subversion of the Diaspora’s dark beginnings feels a little out of place.
Parks seeks to relate the atrocious psychological and physical cost of slavery and, in this, she puts her main African American characters to good use. Toussaint’s Hero is generally not a hero. “I’ll go trot behind the master, the non-Hero that I am,” he says bitterly in part 1. He is morally confused to the point of assimilating the twisted logic of white privilege, which should be abhorrent to any enslaved person, and believe it is honour. The words sound perverse coming from his lips. At times, Hero almost renders the Colonel’s physical presence unnecessary! Even Hero’s one unselfish act in part 2 could be motivated by guilt for an earlier betrayal. Still, Toussaint should be applauded for managing to keep Hero likeable enough, which is no small feat.
Marshall is a connoisseur of passion, which makes the way that the other slaves mind her opinion completely understandable. Akingbola’s Homer has relatively little stage time, yet he is the heart and moral centre of the entire piece. He is also perhaps the character that a black audience might empathise and engage with most, along with Wringer’s wonderful Oldest Old Man. Shouldering two unnamed roles each, Mamba, Niles and Pennycooke as field slaves (part 1) and runaway slaves (part 3), are excellent. But for the reasons above, they feel under-used. Dex Lee first as a field slave (part 1) suffers as the rest do. As Odyssey (part 3), he gives an openly comedic performance, highly stylised and somewhat satirical. He finally puts his dramedic energy to good use in demonstrating the mannerisms of a dog.
Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 has won both Parks and Bonney multiple awards over the last 2 years. Parks studied under novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic James Baldwin, who encouraged her to become a playwright. He described her as “an utterly astounding and beautiful creature who may become one of the most valuable artists of our time.” It has been universally well-received as a thoughtful, entertaining play, which is fun to watch. In the present social climate, I’m not sure the ‘whimsical humour’ stands out enough.
Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 previewed from September 15th, with opening night on the 22nd, and ended its run October 22nd.