In Suzan-Lori Parks‘ essay “The Elements of Style” she writes,”History is time that won’t quit.” It is a line set apart from the others. It has its own title: history. For that reason it stands out (though a number of other lines have their own titles too, so it does not stand out too much). When I first read these words a little over a week ago, they made me smile. I remember thinking that it was just Parks being clever (something she certainly is). I can assure you that I promptly forgot about my amusement with the line about three minutes after I had read it.
However, as I sat in the audience of The American Repertory Theater’s production of Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars (parts 1,2, & 3) the line made its way to the front of my mind again. Though the play is set around the American Civil War, many of the themes and images felt potent in regards to recent social and political events. History was brought to the present in a shocking way. There was one moment during part two where Hero (later named Ulysses) asserts that it seems like a black man is worth more when he belongs to a white man than when he belongs to himself. If he is walking down the street and a white man stops him, he can put his hands up and say that he belongs to the Colonel, but if he says that he belongs to himself he gets beat senseless. In describing that he belongs to a white man Hero raises his hands. It says that he’s not violent. He’s innocent. He is spoken for because he belongs to someone else. Hero needs the protection of his white owner to survive. He can’t exist unless he is spoken for. Naturally, this brought up the image of Hands Up, Don’t Shoot and the murder of Michael Brown, who put his hands up in a similar show of nonviolence and was still shot. If Hero had been a free man, he would have suffered the same fate. The image of black hands in the air holds the same relevance in a play set in 1862 as in our contemporary American society. Furthermore, in many states at the time a black man on the street could be beat–legally, no questions asked (Professor Korobkin, BU lecture 2015). Disgustingly, that feels relevant to our modern sensibility. Both Hero and a black man on the street in 2015 are in danger just because they are black.
Additionally, though it is not as relevant to the present day, there was another image that struck me as particularly powerful in the scope of American history. Hero holds Smith, another soldier, by a rope. The rope is around Smith’s neck. Though Smith looks white, he is in fact a black man who “passes” as white (and it saves his life). The rope around his neck looks too much like a noose. It is a reference to the stream of violent lynchings that followed the emancipation. These lynchings continued into the mid 20th century. The image of the noose serves as a reminder to the audience that even if they get out of the war and even if they escape slavery, these men are not free. The story of racially charged violence in our history continues well past the mid 19th century.
Finally, there is a spell of time during the play where the characters discuss Hero’s monetary value. They add and subtract money based on Hero’s skills, character, and physical build. What is the worth of a man, the play asks its audience. A black man? A white man? How much does he matter? Father Comes Home from the Wars reminds us that the worth of a black man was brought into consideration well before #BlackLivesMatter, and not in a socially progressive way. Parks’ piece serves as a reminder that the events of our time do not stand alone. They are part of a larger story–one that won’t quit.
Listen to Parks talk about the piece here:
Learn more about the A.R.T. production here