This monumental modern classic about slavery and the Civil War receives a jaw-dropping production.
Perhaps the least surprising moment in Suzan-Lori Parks’s thunderclap of a play Father Comes Home From the Wars is when a promise is broken. A master promises his slave: Follow me to the war and serve me well, and you will earn your freedom.
It’s a promise that, from the moment it’s spoken, is destined for the scrap heap. And it’s notably one of the few moments in the play that isn’t startling, that isn’t an adrenaline shot to the heart of the grand Civil War epic. It stands out from the rest because it feels so tragically inevitable. Father Comes Home From the Wars is about a people whose arc throughout history has been nothing but a series of promises, every one of which was made to be broken—an arc that doesn’t bend towards justice, but that has to be bent.
And this show isn’t even the whole thing. Its full title is Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). The 2015 Pulitzer finalist is the first third of a planned nine-part cycle from Parks, who won the award in 2002 for her classic Topdog/Underdog. Directed here by Niegel Smith on a titanic gray slab of a set, etched with the stars and bars of the Confederate flag—a literal Confederate monument from designer Courtney O’Neill—each part is its own link in the grander, Odyssey-influenced chain.
Part 1, “A Measure of a Man,” finds Hero (Kamal Angelo Bolden), a slave on a west Texas plantation, debating whether to serve his master in the war in exchange for his promised freedom. While his fellow compatriots bet and bicker over whether he’ll do it, Hero’s wife, Penny (Aimé Donna Kelly), implores him to stay, and his one-footed rival Homer (Jaime Lincoln Smith) waits to confront him over Hero’s role in foiling his previous attempt to escape.
Part 2, “The Battle in the Wilderness,” sees Hero and his master, Colonel (William Dick), lost in the woods and in possession of a wounded Union soldier (Demetrios Troy). The act opens with a hilarious battle of the strings between the Colonel and the show’s blueswoman emcee, local musician Melody Angel. From there, it becomes an increasingly hostile game of banter between the Colonel and the soldier, eventually turning into a tug-of-war over not just Hero’s freedom but his soul.
Part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” opens with a chorus of runaway slaves (Tyrone Phillips, Nicole Michelle Haskins, Bernard Gilbert) that Penny and Homer are aiding back on the plantation. Word arrives that Hero has been killed in the war, only for his long lost dog, Odyssey (BrittneyLove Smith), to show up bearing entirely different news.
What happens after that is a searing rebuke of millennia-old clichés around love, fidelity and trauma. Hero might be the hero, but heroes don’t exist anymore, if they ever did. And either way, Penny is certainly no virgin damsel in need of saving.
In addition to the crackling, funny and poetic dialogue that she’s been slinging her entire career, Parks brings a Shakespearean theatricality to Father that lifts the play into the so-called great pantheon. It’s a script that achieves the almost impossible feat of being important without ever being self-important.
Smith, his design team and a uniformly outstanding cast—led by Bolden in a performance so emotionally naked he might as well be flayed—make Parks’s words sing like Gabriel’s horn announcing judgement day. Only not quite. Because Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) is doing something else; it’s calling up the ghosts of a thousand judgement days past, a long chain of them, four centuries’ worth, a history told in promises made and broken.
Goodman Theatre. Written by Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Niegel Smith. With ensemble cast. Running time: 3hrs, 15min; two intermissions.