Where: Goodman Theatre Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 24
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” is unlike any play you’ve seen before. Suzan-Lori Parks, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog”), ingeniously fuses Homeric saga, Greek tragedy, broad comedy, moral questions, jazz rhythms, contemporary idioms, and a whole lot more to tell a gripping American story about the effects of slavery that’s set during the Civil War but resonates today. Goodman Theatre’s Chicago premiere directed by Niegel Smith brings it compellingly to life with so much power and passion that the three-plus hours practically fly by.
First staged in New York in 2014, the three parts each can stand alone, but they’re more cohesive together and actually are conceived as the first installments of a nine-part epic. The debt to “The Odyssey” is obvious in both serious and playful ways, starting with the basic story line and the names of the characters: the slave Hero, who later takes the name Ulysses (Kamal Angelo Bolden); his loving wife Penny (Aimé Donna Kelly); his talking dog Odd-See, as in Odyssey, named for his crossed eyes (BrittneyLove Smith); and fellow slave Homer (Jaime Lincoln Smith).
But there also are shades of the story of Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War, and groups of slaves function like the chorus in Greek drama, explaining and commenting on what transpires, often with incrementally enhanced repetitions like musical variations. A Musican/narrator—here the terrific Melody Angel—sings Parks’ and other bluesy songs, accompanying herself on guitar and observing the action from the sidelines.
Part 1, entitled “A Measure of a Man,” concentrates on Hero’s wrenching dilemma. The “Boss-Master” wants him to come with him to war on the Confederate side and has promised to free him if he does. But if he goes, he’ll be fighting on the wrong side for a cause he abhors, and anyway Boss-Master has broken similar promises before. On the other hand, if he stays home to work in the fields on the Texas plantation, all the slaves including him will be punished, and if he goes, they’ll get a little reward.
Described in the program as “The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves,” the others are waiting for daybreak and placing bets on whether the undecided Hero will go or stay home. The Oldest Old Man (Ernest Perry, Jr.), his surrogate father, wants him to put on the leftover scraps of a Confederate uniform Boss-Master gave him and go. His wife Penny desperately wants him to stay. He even considers cutting off his foot so the others won’t be whipped. In the debate, the truth comes out about what really happened when Hero was forced to cut off Homer’s foot, revealing him to be more of an anti-hero who betrayed his friend.
This revelation and the ensuing rancor force Hero’s hand, and “Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness” finds him waiting on his Boss-Master, the sadistic but sentimental Colonel (William Dick), in a wooded area where they are lost somewhere between the Union and Confederate forces. The Colonel has taken prisoner the wounded Smith (Demetrios Troy), whom he believes to be a Union captain and plans to turn in for a reward. Keeping Smith stuffed in a wooden cage, he urges him to sing along with his racist ditties and taunts him about secretly wanting to own a slave, forcing him to speculate on Hero’s price. He also humiliates Hero, who stoically keeps his cool, even when he has to put a ridiculous white plume in the Colonel’s hat and listen to him boastfully go on and on, thanking God for being white.
After the Colonel goes to play lookout, Smith tries to befriend Hero. At first, he’s rebuffed but soon they bond, leading to a key discussion about the implications of freedom. Wondering who he’s going to belong to when slavery is abolished, Hero asks,
“How much you think we’re gonna be worth when freedom comes?” He’s doubtful when Smith tells him he will belong to himself and concludes, “Seems like the worth of a Colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave.”
Back on the plantation for “Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts,” Penny has given Homer her body but not her heart. They’re helping a trio of runaway slaves who are waiting for dark to continue their journey and urge Homer to go with them, when Penny, who has been anxiously awaiting Hero’s return, learns from Boss-Master’s wife that both the Colonel and Hero have been killed. But the long-missing Odd-See, the talking dog, turns up with a more complicated tale, followed by Hero himself, whose shocking admissions—here’s where Agamemnon and familiar tropes about men changed by war come in—turn Penny’s world upside down. In the end, Hero, having forgotten to read the Emancipation Proclamation to the others in a flash of fury at Homer, is left alone to bury the Boss-Master who abused him.
Director Smith and his designers have hit upon style that serves the material well. Courtney O’Neill’s abstract set design, enhanced by Keith Parham’s lighting, features a concrete-lookng back wall impressed with the outlines of a Confederate flag, Linda Cho’s costumes are more-or-less of the period, but Boss-Master’s slaves are dressed in prison orange, emphasizing their state, and the runaway slaves wear outfits covered with American flags symbolizing their hopes for the future. Justin Ellington’s original music and sound design complete the picture.
The acting by Bolden and the ensemble is all anyone could ask for. My only qualm about “Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3” is that if Parks is considering having all nine parts of the epic performed together, she’s going to have to do some serious trimming.