It is not unusual for Yale Rep to have a magnificent production, but they have outdone themselves with Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3.” If it at all possible, run, don’t walk, to see it.
The play, the first three parts of a serial work which may run to 12 parts, uses the structure of the Iliad, but applies it to a “family” of slaves in ‘Far West Texas – in the middle of nowhere’ from the Spring of 1862 to the Fall of 1863 – actually a group of slaves ‘belonging’ to one family. We see them first collecting before dawn to debate with each other whether Hero (James Udom) will accept his master’s offer to go with him to fight in the Confederate Army, with the promise that at the end of the war he will be a free man, no longer a slave. The question is serious enough that they are taking bets on the outcome, waiting there before the sun rises, and that allows for some family secrets to be revealed: Hero recently kicked at his dog, and for at least a day the dog, never away from him, has not been seen. The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) has been like a father to Hero. He feels like he is his father and has loved him completely since Hero was a little boy. He hopes that Hero will not go. As others wake and collect (Chivas Michael, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safia Fredericks, Erron Crawdord) we also learn that Hero’s wife, Penny (Eboni Flowers), will not want him to go, and that his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez) has mixed feelings. Homer walks gingerly, with a crutch; Half of his right foot was cut off when he was caught by the master after running away some years ago. And when Hero arrives we learn that he is decidedly mixed about his decision. He considers – dramatically – cutting off his own foot so that he cannot go. Something changes, though, when one of the gathered group reveals that she knows that it was Hero who told the master where Homer was hiding that day. Hero doesn’t deny it, but says the master had a gun to his head when it happened. The impact on the ‘family’ is intense. The Oldest Old Man turns his back to show how disowns his ‘son.’ Others cry, and as the sun finally rises, Hero goes off to be part of the war
In the second part, the master, known only as ‘the Colonel’ (Dan Hiatt), is camped in the woods in the Summer of 1862, about noon. He has presumably saved the life of ‘Smith. a captive Union Soldier’ (Tom Pecinka), who he keeps in a rustic cage. Smith’s leg is useless and bandaged from a gunshot wound. Hero is present, fetching water, and helping the Colonel preen. Sounds of a battle are distant, and then closer. Some discussion among the three men allows the Colonel to make a blistering speech about how every morning he gives thanks for what he has that Hero does not: he is a white man, and therefore superior by birth to all other races. While the Colonel checks to see how close the fighting is, Hero and Smith have a very interesting dialogue which I won’t tell you more about. When you see the play you’ll understand why.
In part three, members of the group are again in West Texas, in the fall of 1863. Only now they have become runaways. Penny has helped them with food. She tells how the Mistress is in tears over something about Emancipation and believes the Colonel must be dead. Homer has stayed with Penny, and loves her, but she has refused to kiss him because she is still faithful to Hero – who may also be dead. When Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace) arrives he is able to fill in some details about what happened during the war. He was there, he says, because for him it was natural to be loyal. Loyalty is natural for dogs – not so for humans. Loyalty in humans is as rare as being able to speak is in dogs. And so, he followed Hero and was always with him… even now, because Hero has returned, but he has changed his name to Ulysses. Here again the story becomes my secret. To spin it out to you would be a disservice. Except to tell you that his last words as I recall them are, ‘now let me get to burying the master’s body.’
The talking dog, the questions of loyalty, the duplicity of freedom, the beautiful production, directed by Liz Diamond, with songs added by Suzan-Lori Parks, and sung by Martin Luther McCoy, and a production team including Randy Duncan (choreography), Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Sarah Nietfield (costumes), Yi Zhao (lighting), and Frederick Kennedy (sound and music); make this a fabulous spring event. It is part of Yale’s Will Power program, which means that school students from Connecticut will get to see it at special morning matinees. And because it is a co-production with ACT in San Francisco, it will open there soon after it closes here on April 7.
Thing to consider on the way home, and days afterward: the intricate weaving of the story of the Iliad into the story of the Civil War. What did it mean for a black man to serve in the Union Army? How much more then to help in the Confederate Army? And about all War, all Wars. What do they mean?
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre March 29, 2018