While hundreds of thousands of Americans died in the bloodiest war in its history, there was an emotional war brewing in the hearts and minds of African American slaves in the South. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks gathered these narratives to create an interesting twist on the unfortunately familiar story of slavery in Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Father Comes Home from the Wars.
Daring to question any definition of freedom, Suzan-Lori Parks crafted a tale of a strong and capable slave, Hero (Sterling K. Brown), and his strict adherence to morality. Hero oddly believed that it was his moral obligation to remain a slave and not run. Hero reasoned that his monetary worth stopped him from "stealing" his independence.
This welcome twist had me interested from the start. History aside, I have never considered such a moral dilemma before. The consequences of Hero's blind following of his inner compass affected everything in his life and made for a compelling story.
Director Jo Bonney brought this tale to life with the help of Scenic Designer Neil Patel, Costume Designer Esosa, and Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu. Nestled near a modest cabin, the stage brought me to a modest Texas planation in the early spring of 1862 in Parts 1 and 3 and in 2, a camp in late summer where the cabin was replaced with a small wooden cell.
Music Director Steven Bargonetti accentuated each mood change with a strum of his guitar and the occasional welcome tune, which was acknowledged and sometimes even joined by cast members. Namely, the Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell Jr., Tonye Patano, and Jacob Ming-Trent.
Each slave gambled on Hero's choice of whether or not to follow their master to war. They roused laughter and pulled me into a world where the wager of a simple spoon or boot has more worth than any other. The band of less than desirables may have used some 21st Century language but this did not diminish their presence.
The Oldest Old Man and Hero's adopted father was played by Peter Jay Fernandez. This oldest man was a proud and concerned father with unsteady hands, a long gray beard, the inability to hold back thoughts and a modern pair of crocs. Fernandez was the first character to question liberty and its price: Should Hero turn away from this war if he is promised freedom at its end?
Penny (Jenny Jules), Hero's lover, questioned him further and helped to create this overtone of liberation. Should Hero refuse and take a stand against the Confederate mission to preserve slavery? Jenny Jules attempted to manipulate Hero’s principles and her chemistry with Brown made the exchange more captivating.
Homer, played by Jeremie Harris, was a character whose presence was a constant reminder to Hero of his choices. Harris' dynamic with Brown was that of palpable hostility. This negativity was a pull away from Hero’s belief that running is stealing, but not strong enough to change his mind.
I wanted to see how Hero's morality held against a stronger onslaught. Louis Cancelmi played Smith, a captive Union soldier who began this attack. Surely a Union soldier with his own freedom and tales of a better land could rattle Hero's resolve? Cancelmi portrayed a free “white” man wrestling with Hero’s choice to remain a slave with poise.
My fascination with Hero's belief system and the general overtone of self-determination was mildly slowed by Ken Marks' character, Hero's owner. Marks, a Colonel in the Rebel Army, attempted and succeeded in emulating the convictions of the white male population of the Confederacy at large. Marks effortlessly embodied white supremacy, the belief in the importance of the spread of slavery and even muttered “Thank God I was born a white man.” This was, however, a lot to fit into one character.
The comic relief was Hero's Dog, Odyssey, hilariously played by Jacob Ming-Trent. Revealing himself in Part 3, this surprisingly talking dog expertly drew the air from my lungs. A dog for Hero to have dominion over, Ming-Trent retells Hero's tale with a wagging tail of his own.
Both believable and thought-provoking, Sterling K. Brown's rendition of Hero was well done. The story of slavery has been told in many ways and often it is mired with a history lesson--lacking freshness. Hero's unique moralistic qualities had a new fragrance.
Review By: Alex Lipari
Photos By: Sara Krulwich