Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 &3) by Suzan-Lori Parks The Royal Court Theatre 16 September, 2016
‘Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’ is as ambitious as the title lets on. Suzan-Lori Parks’ play(s) work to create a sprawling, Homeric epic on themes of war, journey, home, return, freedom…and the price paid for it. Suzan-Lori Parks adapts ‘The Odyssey’ and puts it into a modern vernacular, using the backdrop of the American Civil War and the wages of Emancipation.
The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square has a long history of supporting playwrights as the central creators of the art of theatre. Their mission statement says:
The Royal Court Theatre is the writers theatre. It is the leading force in world theatre for energetically cultivating writers- undiscovered, emerging, and established.
Since the 1950’s great writers for the stage have had their works introduced at The Royal Court (John Osborne, Samuel Beckett, David Hare), or produced on this stage (Athol Fugard, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill, Jez Butterworth). One of the joys of attending an evening at The Royal Court is that , as a theatre dedicated to the writer, The Royal Court has a history of selling the full text of the play as the evening’s program. This allows an appreciation of the play to be something done upon reflection. It is a powerful and useful exercise to be invited so warmly into the writer’s world, and it allows the viewer to not only pass an evening enjoying the theatre, but to enter into a discussion with the artist herself. ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars’ is an excellent match for The Royal Court, since it is concerned not only with the themes mentioned above, but also with the powerful and timeless act of storytelling itself.
The play begins much as any Greek drama would, with a chorus standing before the household, waiting for the action to unfold, expectant for the hero, and engaged with his battle. In this case, the chorus is a group of slaves standing in front of the white washed shotgun shack which is the home to Hero and Penny, the play’s protagonists. The chorus is awaiting Hero’s decision to join his master, The Colonel, and journey into the war, betting on the whether he will go or stay. Hopes are laid out, bets are laid, and all the characters present literally have a stake to lose in the outcome. In fact, the three separate plays which make up parts 1, 2 & 3 of this cycle each stand as its own Greek drama, and adhere to the Aristotelian Unities of Time, Place, and Theme. In Part 1, ‘A Measure of a Man,’ Hero is set forth as the hero of the piece in every way, and he has sins to expiate: when the lame slave Homer had plotted his escape, Hero betrayed him by telling Master of his plans. Hero’s decision to go into war is a self-pronounced opportunity to wash himself clean of this sin, and to find freedom from his past.
In part 2, ‘A Battle in the Wilderness,’ Hero again has a man’s freedom in his hands, this time as the guard for a wounded Union captive, Smith, who wears the tunic of a Captain and is part of a regiment of freed slaves. As a captive, Smith worth as a hostage is the delight of The Colonel, and he gleefully assesses Smith’s value. This discussion of men as property transitions into another gruesome wager, as Master wagers Smith’s freedom against the Union soldier ability to assess the worth of Hero, to literally name the slave’s purchase price. Hero stands dutifully, being appraised, once again on a sort of auction block. Suzan-Lori Parks uses these physical ideas (worth, wounds, chance) as a way to hold up the play’s most compelling question. When The Colonel leaves, and Hero discovers that Smith is in truth a freed slave - an octoroon passing as a white man and serving as a private in the freed slave regiment – Hero is given his own chance to liberate a man. Smith reciprocates by giving Hero the chance to run with him, and gain his own freedom. It is a freedom which Hero balks at:
HERO: Who will I belong to? SMITH: You’ll belong to yourself. HERO: So when a Patroller comes up to me, when I’m walking down the road to work or to what-have-you and when a Patroller comes up to me and says: ‘Whose nigger are you, Nigger?’ I’m gonna say ‘I belong to myself’? Today I can say ‘I belong to the Colonel.’
[Imagining being confronted by a Patroller, HERO holds up his hands. Reminiscent of ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’]
‘I belong to the Colonel,’ I say now. That’s how come they don’t beat me. But when freedom comes, and they stop me and ask and I say, ‘I’m on my own. I’m on my own and I own my ownself’, you think they'll leave me be?
The call out to ‘Hands up! Don’t shoot!’ is clear and explicit in Suzan-Lori Parks’ text, and it brings Hero’s question into today: what is freedom without worth? Is the chance to be made free, but given no value, worth the price?
Fetching back to the ancient stories for the world today is at the heart of ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars’ The plays cast an epic story of the American psyche in a modern vernacular, using an ancient structure and style. In retelling the old stories, something is recovered and stored against the future:
THE RUNAWAY SLAVES FIRST: You haven’t heard the old stories, but I have SECOND: You didn’t know the old stories but I do THIRD: Old stories they guide us each is its own North Star
The stories of Hero and Penny are ancient; even the story of the battles related by The Odyssey Dog as he waits for his master Hero to return, are as old as the Odyssey itself. When Hero returns home to Penny with the Emancipation Proclamation in his hand in Part 3, ‘The Union of my Confederate Parts,’ Hero, Penny and Homer struggle with the challenges of making their own choices as newly freed slave, and find that self-determination has a responsibility. They have the choice to write their own stories, and re-write the stories of the past.