When one hears the word hero, many adjectives come to mind such as brave, adventurous and true. They are individuals who garner admiration and even love. However, a hero can also be flawed. Occasionally those shortcomings are a result of their own self-importance and sometimes they are born from a bigger and more difficult situation outside of their control. Suzan-Lori Parks has created just such a hero in her play, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). The play, that presents the first three in a nine-part series, is currently making its home at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland.
Using Homer’s Odyssey as inspiration, Ms. Parks tells the story of the aptly named Hero. Hero is a much admired African-American slave who accompanies his master to the battlefields of the Civil War. This is no simple war story or even a straightforward retelling of the horrors of slavery. It goes beyond being a morality tale. While it certainly shows the injustices of slavery, the play explores the complexity of human emotion and human frailty. In going off to war, Hero has much to contend with – the feelings of his fellow slaves, leaving his love behind and his complicated feelings about both his master and his place in the world.
Ms. Parks has written a thoughtful play with language this is almost musical at times. And music is used beautifully in this production in the form of blues musician Memphis Gold (The Musician). His soul-stirring voice creates just the right tone for the piece.
Joining him, is a wonderfully cast ensemble led by Jaben Early as Hero. Simply put, Mr. Early is superb. All at once he conveys strength and vulnerability, bravery and cowardice and inconstancy while still managing to be true. His presence on stage is so palpable, that even during the times when his character is not at the forefront, he never fully disappears.
As Hero’s love interest, Valeka J. Holt (Penny) is nothing short of fierce. She takes over the moment she walks on the stage. She is the kind of actress that makes you want to know more about the character she is playing.
The remainder of the ensemble are equally compelling but special mention should be made of Craig Wallace (The Oldest Old Man/Odyssey) and Michael Kevin Darnall (Smith). Both deliver layered performances that make them interesting to watch.
Even though the pace can be a bit slow at times, the direction by Timothy Douglas is on point. He is joined by an outstanding creative team.
Tony Cisek (Scenic Designer) is especially notable for his effective set design. His set tells a story without one word being uttered on stage. Particularly striking is his use of a ramp that leads to an elevated path. The path is supported by what looks to be tree roots. However, a closer look at those roots reveal that they actually look like a human form with arms held high, carrying their loads.
There are so many ways to describe Father Comes Home from the Wars. It is certainly true that the play serves as a reminder of a dark time in American history and that it is a commentary on the weakness of man. It can also be seen as call to society to not repeat its past mistakes. It is all of those things but in the end it is about one man’s journey and the choices he makes.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) has been extended through February 28th 2016. Ticket and show information may be found at roundhousetheatre.org