OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LOS ANGELES, CA - What happens after freedom? This question, and many others, are smartly explored in Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3, a play by Suzan Lori-Parks currently running at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Largely inspired and staged like a Greek tragedy, the three, linearly connected extended scenes explore the effect of war and slavery on African Americans during the Civil War era, and sadly suggest that technical freedom may not be the end of the battle, a sentiment that is still all too relevant in the modern era.
Father Comes Home From the Wars debuted at The Public Theater in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While the scope and implications of the story are wide, it is presented primarily through simple conversations, directed here by Jo Bonney. Part 1, entitled “The Measure of a Man,” introduces us to Hero (Sterling K. Brown, recently fantastic as Chris Darden in American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson), a slave and husband staring down the prospect of following his master to the war. The ensemble of other slaves on the plantation form a Greek chorus of sorts, partially narrating the play, which draws intentional, non-subtle parallels between Hero’s story and Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” We meet Hero’s devoted wife, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), who promises to wait for him, and learn of a morally questionable choice in Hero’s past that begins the process of painting him as the incredibly multi-dimensional character he turns out to be.
Part 2, entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness,” follows Hero and his master, the Colonel (Michael McKean, Better Call Saul) to the war, where the Colonel has captured a Yankee, Smith (Josh Wingate) who ends up having a profound effect on Hero. Finally, in part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” Hero returns home a changed man, and the reunion the audience anticipates is not at all what unfolds.
The tone of this play is rather fascinating—while it obviously deals with incredibly serious subject matter, there is an air of tragicomedy about it. For example, we hear frequently about Hero’s devoted dog, aptly named Odyssey, and when we finally meet him in Part 3, he is played by a human actor—and, he can talk. Layering in an absurdist element like this with commentary on the implications of war and slavery is a bold choice that helps the play remain vivid throughout its nearly three hour running time. A musician (Steven Bargonetti) helps ease the scene transitions while also remaining on-stage, a voyeur of sorts overseeing the action.
The fantastic performances are the highlight of this Center Theatre Group production. Brown especially is fantastic, humanizing a character I found to be almost shockingly unlikable by Part 3. While I may have disagreed with some of Hero’s choices, I did understand them. McKean was also excellent as the villainous, cringeworthy Colonel, playing up the ridiculousness of the character perfectly.
While I found some moments, particularly near the end, overstayed their welcome a bit, the final beats were incredibly poignant, as both Hero and the audience were left to contemplate the true meaning of freedom and how it is often not as simple as it sounds. Even on the other side of the war, things aren’t always clear, the journey is often just beginning, and sometimes it is a struggle to maintain a sense of identity. What happens when you get what you’ve always wanted and it’s still not the final answer? While it may be set in the 1860s, many of the themes of this play still ring frighteningly true today, and while more questions may be raised than answered, you will still be riveted.
Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3 runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through May 15th. Tickets range from $25 to $85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.