BWW Review: FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS Dazzles at Open Stage
Classical allusions abound in Suzan-Lori Parks' FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (PARTS 1, 2 & 3). The lead's name, have no mistake, is Hero, which is certainly how he sees himself, until he changes his name to Ulysses (allegedly in honor of General Grant) - fitting as he goes off to war a Hero and returns to his wife, Penelope. There are numerous references to his dog, who is introduced in person in the third act, in which we discover that his name is Odd-See - Odyssey - for his eyes looking about strangely. One could chalk all of this up to Hero/Ulysses and Penelope, two slaves, and their friend, the slave Homer, being owned by a man of culture among the fields of Texas, but when we meet Boss Master, he seems less couth than a classicist might be, and Parks has also added Greek choruses of first, current slaves, and later, runaway slaves.
Parks, who professed in college to thinking theatre pompous, simultaneously makes appropriate character and plot allusions with her names, and tweaks the conventions of classical theatre. It's a clever approach, and it works with the mythic construct of her plot, the hero's journey... which isn't always as successful as Joseph Campbell would have you believe. For the Confederate quest in the Civil War, little was successful.
At Open Stage of Harrisburg, directed by Donald Alsedek, Parks' playful use of classical allusion and structure to tell a story of what is really fairly recent American history (and is easily paralleled by the much more recent 1960s Civil Rights movement and by much of today's questionable political landscape) is aided by a cast that has immersed itself into the show so fully that audience members may feel tempted to react to the characters immediately and personally.
Leonard Dozier, who plays Hero, is adept at the portrayal of complex characters, even though few are more complicated than this seemingly simple slave who begins by trying to decide if he should accompany Boss Master to war against the Yankees. Various considerations, including the lure of a uniform and the offer of freedom, make him decide to leave Penelope and his friends on their Texas home and serve as a valet to their owner, who is to be a Confederate colonel. While Dozier is a joy to watch, much of the interest in the first act is held by Aaron Bomar, playing the leader of a Greek chorus of "less than desirable slaves," and by Ronald G. Chapel as "The Oldest Old Man," Hero's surrogate father, who with Louis Riley III as Homer debate whether Hero will go to war or have the good sense to stay home.
In act two, we see Hero and the Colonel, his master, holding a Yankee officer captive. Hero is serving his master faithfully, holding out for eventual freedom, while being torn by the images of freedom that the Northerner holds out. Hero is confused about the idea of freedom, and so well might he be, for a man who has never not been property. Dozier admirably conveys the bewilderment of a slave asking what it means to belong to oneself rather than someone else, and trying to understand what his worth could be if it is not measured in the dollars it would cost to buy him. Jedidiah Franklin is on point as "Captain Smith," a soldier with more layers than an onion, most of those layers secrets. Hero becomes only more complex as he discovers and absorbs some of those secrets.
But the act nonetheless belongs to Mark Douglas Cuddy as the Colonel, Hero's master, a hard-drinking popinjay of a soldier more obsessed with appearances than value. The feather for his officer's hat is more important than safety, the illusion of his wealth through slaves owned more important to impress on the Yankee than any truth. It's a testament to Cuddy's performance that in the small area of the Open Stage theatre, one's tempted to get out of one's seat and slap the damned fool Confederate.
Act three is all visceral reaction, both of characters and of the audience. Hero, now Ulysses, has returned home from the wars, and life will never be the same for anyone at his home. Penny (Penelope), his wife and a house slave, played by Tanisha Hollis, comes into her own here. In the first act she's nearly an afterthought, the woman left behind; here, unlike the original mythic Penelope, she's found ways to move on even though she's certain her husband is alive. He is alive, it seems, but is Ulysses, the returned soldier, the husband who left her?
Penny, Homer, and Aaron Bomar's character, now a man among a group of runaway slaves, form a stable triangle in the scene until the disruptive arrival of Ulysses, heralded by Odyssey Dog, played by Caliph White. Odyssey is a marvel, a Greek chorus of one in a talking dog understood by the humans around him, and one of the best pieces of humor in a dark show. White is a delight, all physical and nervous energy creating the likeness of an excited dog who can't tell a straight story because... birds! Smells! An itch! White's Odyssey is the lovable character of the show; while most of the others aren't unlikeable, White's portrayal brings immediate audience affection.
The first two acts, it seems, can stand on their own two legs, but they exist precisely to cause Ulysses to return home, with all the fallout accompanying him. War, it is said, changes men, and Ulysses has been changed in more than name. The brilliance of Dozier's portrayal is that he is the only character who doesn't realize that he's not the man he was. The changes in the land that the war has brought, the unexpected developments in his owner's family, and the travels he's had and the people he's met have all impacted him, though he is the only one who can't see it. And he's become more like his master than he realizes. Hollis's portrayal of a woman forced to make difficult decisions when faced with the return of someone who is not the man who left her is electric.
If the question one asks at the end isn't "what is freedom?" nothing is.
FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS is a brilliant character study from a Pulitzer-winning author and playwright. It's based on some of America's most unpleasant history, not only slavery but the minds and attitudes of people who owned and were slaves. It can be painful to watch at moments because of the truth being revealed like a bandage being torn off skin, but it cannot leave an audience unmoved. Without illusions, without huge sets, without anything but minimal sets and a cast of highly talented actors, this play if any illustrates what modern drama can be - tense, provocative, and wildly stimulating. It's the sort of play that makes you need to go for coffee with friends afterwards to process what you saw and what you felt; it is the sort of play that justifies the existence of theatre on the one hand, and terrifies those who are afraid to think on the other.
This is theatre that tells truth to power while never losing its artistry. It's no wonder that James Baldwin prophesied that Parks would become great. The show is an absolute must-see in a way few things are. At Open Stage through February 26, and worth every minute both in writing and in performance. Tickets and information available at openstagehbg.com.