Renaissance philosopher Sir Phillip Sidney writes in his “In Defense of Posey,” that art can’t ever lie because it is the one thing in life that never claims to be fact.
I was thinking about this a lot while watching the first three parts of Susan-Lori Park’s new soon-to-be nine part play cycle, Father Comes home from the Wars, running now at the American Repertory Theatre. The play is a backyard epic of sorts that follows a young slave named Hero as he goes to war with his Master. In a talkback afterwards with Susan-Lori Parks and historian Eric Foner there was much discussion to whether historical accuracy should play any part in creative endeavors. Parks chimes in with the astute comment that she didn’t base this around a historical even but, “it feels like this happened,” and I couldn’t agree more.
So many stories are gone to us forever that when you get to experience story as honest and beautiful as this one, it can’t be anything but true. The characters addressed the audience from time to time though out the three parts and I felt in the audience that I was always invested because of it. It was if these characters were checking in, “you still with me?” I wasn’t watching something, I was a part of it. In the third part, Hero’s dog comes back and lo and behold, is played by an actor and talks. Oh, does he talk. He talks in this beautiful stream of consciousness that is both part dog and part poet. He’s showing us the story of loyalty, a story of watching someone you love grow up and sticking besides him anyway. That dog’s story was just as real as everything else that was happening on stage. This narrative under the ruse of a historical play continually alludes to other forms of literature and theatre, especially the Greeks, and pushes the experience into the world of art where truth can come alive.
A week later, there is an image from part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness” that I still can’t get out of my head. The image of Hero, accepting a union army jacket, putting it on, as easy as coming home only to slip his confederate jacket over it with just as much conviction. Freedom is complicated. Humanity is complicated. It’s also beautiful. That image of two coats, of someone wearing something underneath what everyone else sees, feels like a suit of armor. The ideologies we hold close to our hearts even if expressing them is difficult. Hero has to look directly in the eye of his destiny, and doesn’t choose the movie ready glory and freedom, but the choice that will allow him to put one foot in front of the other for the rest of his journey. What’s different, is now he carries the support and conviction of a kindred spirit with him along for the ride.
This play explores such complex ideas about freedom and arrives at no answers. Parks herself mentioned the notion that perhaps none of her characters are free. They’re all tied down by something. Along with the golden ideal of freedom, is the idea of humanity. What’s often holding the characters back are the ties they make to one another. We need each other. We can help each other, if we try. Father and son, man and woman, master and slave, stranger and stranger, even a man and his dog. The moments of connection shine like beacons of hope, even those that are messy and unfinished. The core of this pieces pulses with a heartbeat of people that aren’t willing to give up. Of people who struggle to relate to one another in hopes that they can help each other along their journeys.
Susan-Lori Parks has accomplished so much with these first three parts, I cannot wait to see what will come with the next six.