Saturday, February 07, 2015

The American Repertory Theater Presents "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3)" by Suzan-Lori Parks

Benton Greene as Hero
"Father Comes Home From The  Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3)"
by Suzan-Lori Parks
at the A.R.T. through March 1st

The American Repertory Theater is currently presenting the most recent work by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks.  "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Pars 1,2,& 3)" was first staged last fall in New York City by The Public Theater, which serves as Co-Producer for this production in Cambridge.

Here is a description of the project as offered in the A.R.T. website:

"Set during the Civil War, this explosively powerful new drama by Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks follows a slave, Hero, from West Texas to the Confederate battlefield. Inspired in part by the stories and scope of Greek tragedy, this trilogy examines the mess of war and the cost of freedom. This play is a co-production with The Public Theater and is presented as part of The National Civil War Project.."

This trilogy is the first installment of an anticipated nine-part cycle of plays, reminiscent of August Wilson's acclaimed cycle of Decade Plays depicting the African-American experience in Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th Century.  In this initial offering, Part 1 takes place on a plantation in Texas in the spring of 1862.  Part 2 is set in a wilderness encampment in the South as Union and Confederate soldiers converge on this location.  Part 3 is set back in Texas in 1863.

This play is infused with direct and indirect allusions to Homer's "Odyssey."  Hero sets forth to join his slave master in fighting for the Confederacy, with a promise of freedom as his reward for this faithful service and hazardous duty.  While he is gone, his common-law wife, Penny, entertains a suitor by the name of Homer. After a serious of struggles - some physical and some metaphysical - Hero returns, having re-named himself Ulysses - after U.S. Grant and after the Greek hero.

Ms. Parks has also written songs and thematic music that comments upon the action, underscores some of the scenes and provides a bridge to each of the three parts of the trilogy.  The songs are wonderfully arranged, played and sung by Steven Bargonetti, who also serves as Music Director for the show.  In many ways, these songs that the playwright has written to supplement the dramatic action on the stage are the most satisfying part of the play, especially as performed by Mr. Bargonetti with his virtuoso playing of the guitar and banjo and his earthy voice.

Ms. Parks has broad ambitions for the sweep of this play, exploring issues of freedom and the costs attached thereto, the ravages of war, the meaning of loyalty and love.  As I watched the play unfold, I found that I was more enagaged with these issues in the abstract than I was as they were embodied by the characters in the play.  There is a group of "Less Than Desirable Slaves" in Part 1 that serve as a Greek Chorus, commenting on the action among Hero, Penny and Homer.  In Part 3, some of these same actors portray Runaway Slaves, also functioning as a Greek Chorus commenting upon the triangular relationship that has developed among Ulysses, Penny and Homer.

The Cast
 "Father Comes Home From The  Wars (Parts 1,2 & 3)"
by Suzan-Lori Parks
at the A.R.T. through March 1st
The playwright has made a very interesting choice in Part 3, having Hero's faithful dog, Odyssey, return ahead of the master to tell Penny and Homer and the Runaway Slaves about the death of The Colonel, their slave master, and the immanent return of Hero/Ulysses.  The device of the talking dog did not work for me, adding an element of absurdity that detracted from the seriousness of the subject matter.  Ms. Parks also chose to place elements of anachronism into the action of the play, with a slave wearing a fanny pack, and the Oldest Old Man wearing Crocs on his feet. Modern day speech patterns added to the deliberate attempt to blur time lines - "True dat!" and "Snap" come to mind as examples.  I would surmise that the playwright and the Director, Jo Bonney, are trying to send a message that dynamics of human nature that were true in the days of the poet Homer in Greece and in the days of the Civil War in Texas are just as real in the days of Eric Garner in Staten Island.  I found these anachronistic elements to be distracting.

Th audience this afternoon seemed to enjoy the performances, and the New York Times raved about this play, so clearly there is great merit in the message that Ms. Parks is sending through this complex piece of theater.

The play will run at the Loeb Drama Center at the A.R.T. through March 1st.

Creative team
BySuzan-Lori Parks
DirectorJo Bonney
Scenic DesignerNeil Patel
Costume DesignerESosa
Lighting DesignerLap Chi Chu
Sound Designer/Music SupervisorDan Moses Schreier
Music DirectorSteven Bargonetti
Songs and Additional Music bySuzan-Lori Parks
Hair, Wig, and Makeup DesignersJ. Jared Janas & Rob Greene
Fight DirectorThomas Schall
CastingJordan Thaler, Heidi Griffiths
Production Stage ManagerEvangeline Rose Whitlock
SmithMichael Crane
Hero/UlyssesBenton Greene
Leader/RunawayCharlie Hudson, III
PennyJenny Jules
HomerSekou Laidlow
ColonelKen Marks
Fourth/Odyssey Dog (Jan. 23 - Feb. 5)Jacob Ming-Trent
Fourth/Odyssey Dog (Feb. 6 - Mar. 1)Patrena Murray
Third/RunawayTonye Patano
Second/RunawayJulian Rozzell, Jr.
Oldest Old ManHarold Surratt

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