BWW Review: FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (PARTS 1, 2, AND 3) at Actor's Express
When Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks's Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) premiered at The Public Theater in New York in 2014, The New York Times called it "extraordinary" and Huffington Post declared it to be a "triumphant" work with "soaring language and provocative debate." Now Actor's Express is bringing Parks's story to Atlanta audiences under the direction of Martin Damien Wilkins, and this new production, in addition to garnering the "extraordinary" and "triumphant" superlatives of its New York predecessor, is both simply rendered and breathtakingly powerful.
Parks's play tells the story of Hero, a slave whose master offers him freedom in exchange for fighting in the Civil War - for the Confederacy. The first part of the three-part epic explores Hero's choice and the potential consequences of that choice. If Hero goes to the war, he might not be granted his freedom in exchange for his service. After all, Boss-Master has dangled freedom like a carrot in front of Hero's face and withdrawn it several times before. But if he refuses, his master might take his anger out on the other slaves, including Hero's lover, Penny. The second installment, introducing us to Boss-Master just as he's captured a wounded Union soldier, explores provocative philosophical questions like "How do you determine the worth of a man?" In this meatiest episode, filled with twists and turns that are, at once, startling and inevitable, Hero's master struts back and forth like a peacock in his plumed hat offering a lecture on how great it is to be Southern and white. In the third part, Hero returns home to find that things have changed, both for Penny and for the other slaves, since he left them. But, in the end, the greatest change belongs to Hero himself.
The production showcases an outstanding cast. The dense, lyrical quality of Parks's writing is challenging, and this entire cast is up to the task. Each embodies his role with a sensitivity and authenticity that builds a complex world out of one that is seemingly simplistic. James Ogden's spare set is, for much of the play, the exterior of a small slave cabin. It evokes just enough of a sense of setting to place us in Hero's world, but it's up to the actors to keep us there, and they do. Of particular note is the performance of Marcus Hopkins-Turner as Homer, a one-footed slave, named such, presumably, to pay homage to Park's inspiration source, The Odyssey. Hopkins-Turner's character, in this production, best represents the yearning of the play, and Hopkins-Turner's skill at wading through the muck of defining freedom while advancing our interests' in the other characters is finely-honed. Also of particular note is the performance of Robert Bryan Davis as Boss-Master Colonel. He delivers his lines, often cruel and abusive ones, without apology, allowing us an uncomfortable look into the heart of a racist powermonger.
Another achievement of this fine production is the integration of its music. The slave ensemble, functioning much like a Greek chorus, sing us in and out of the separate parts. And it is a breathtaking respite from the dense and sometimes painful discourse of the play. The music, like the set, is simple and evocative, bringing our attention to a time and place and highlighting the masterful storytelling.
Parks's three-part play, at a running time of just over three hours, is long, but the time in the theater flies by. This Actor's Express production is wholly engaging and realizes the most necessary goal of any production of this play by making us understand that the then of the play and the now of 2017 are deeply and irrevocably connected.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3) runs at Actor's Express through June 11.
For tickets and information, visit https://www.actors-express.com/plays/father-comes-home-from-the-wars-parts-1-2-3