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Layers and Layers – ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars’

I sat down to Father Comes Home from the Wars at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge from a position of total ignorance. I didn’t even look through the program prior to the play starting. I approached with no preconceptions, and so my process of watching was also a process of discovery, and of allowing the deep layers of the text to unfold themselves to me, little by little.

The story centers around Hero, who is a slave on a “modest plantation” in Texas. The year is 1862. Joining him onstage are four close companions, also slaves, who admire Hero and consider him a leader in their community, as well as his brother Homer, his wife, Penny, and “The Oldest Old Man,” to whom Hero looks as a father. The play is composed of three parts, and will be part of a nine-part series.

One of my first things I noticed and started to wonder about was that the characters’ language really spelled things out for the audience. The exposition they provided in the first scene was clear, direct, and obvious. Back-stories were elucidated to characters who clearly would have known them already. Having just read The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Parks, in which the language is rather sparse, heavily symbolic, and loaded with subtext, I knew that this tactic was being used for a specific purpose. It was only then that I noticed the characters were also talking right to us.

This was the beginning of my understanding of the play’s Greek-ness. Parks is masterful in applying Greek structure to this work in a way that is easily recognizable, but has also been tweaked to serve her purpose. Her “Hero” is not a king or a royal, an Agamemnon or an Oedipus. He is a leader in his small group, but as Parks said in the post-show discussion, “My Hero is someone you’ve never heard of.” When Hero returns in the third part, he declares he has named himself Ulysses. His Brother is Homer, and Penny can be a contraction of Penelope. The group of unnamed characters are labelled in the program as a Chorus – in the first part they are the “Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves” and do not have individual names.

Music is an important motif in the play. The audience enters to a performer playing blues-folk-rock riffs on guitar, which he continues to do throughout the performance and during intermission. This performer sits close to the action. In the second part of the play, the Colonel drunkenly plays his banjo and attempts to force his captive Union soldier to sing with him. The Colonel and Hero later have a moment that portrays their history with one another – Hero finishes singing one of the Colonel’s favorite songs. Just from hearing her speak briefly after the performance, it became evident that music is wound into Suzan-Lori Parks’ soul, as a writer and as a person. She described a recurring personal event as “The chorus of my life.” She also used rhythm, percussion, and sound just in her normal speech pattern in order to describe something complicated, and this collection of not-real words conveyed her meaning more clearly than anything formally constructed could have.

There are many threads that weave into Parks’ complex work. However, one of the most compelling to me was the play’s relationship to history. Parks is of course taking on a very specific piece of history by choosing to set her play during the American Civil War. In the post-show discussion, distinguished panel members Eric Foner and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. praised her ability to accurately capture the feeling and sentiments of the period. They also spent a good chunk of time talking about their reactions to digressions from accuracy in other period or historically-specific works. Parks, however, describes that her aim was never to accurately reproduce history, but rather to create some of her own. “I’m making history,” she said in the discussion. So many stories like Hero’s were never recorded, and therefore remain unknown. Most Americans have only heard stories or accounts of the white experience during the Civil War, leaving out a whole other range of experiences that almost no one has even considered. Part of Parks’ mission as an artist is to make those untold and unrecorded stories come to life, and to give visibility to the complexities of the African-American experience. “My call is to remind [audiences] that my people are people,” she said in the discussion. And she portrays these people with such vividness of life and story that it is impossible not to become deeply invested in them.

There is so much to dig into in Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home from the Wars, and still more to come as we await parts 4-9 of the story. I walked away feeling like I had watched an incredibly crafted play that was beautifully acted and gave me plenty of things to think about. Beyond the elements of structure and character that fascinated me, the play invited me to think about a part of history – a part of the American experience – that truly never would have crossed my mind. In addition, the production  made it a point to connect that history to the present moment, as its many questions about freedom are still being teased through today, hundreds of years after slavery “ended.” I love being able to sift through the production’s many layers, and almost feel like I need to read or see the play again to experience them further. I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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