Review: "Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3" at Yale Repertory Theatre

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

Suzan-Lori Parks’ first triptych in her 12-part epic journey, Father Comes Home from the Wars, a co-production with the American Conservatory Theater, explores the journey of a slave during the Civil War. It’s part ode to Greek theater, and part racial commentary that leaves you wondering if we’ll ever cure ourselves of the scourge of racial injustice, given our sordid history with slavery.

Ms. Parks has a remarkable resume: She is a Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama (the first African-American female to win); a MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient; Master Writer Chair at The Public Theatre; and professor in dramatic writing at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. So, it is no surprise that she is producing this poignant, lengthy work about the African-American experience in war. It is masterful writing; a compelling story that moves deliberately without dragging. I was engaged every step of the way and I look forward to the other parts. It’s poetry in a play, with added musical elements written by Parks and performed by Martin Luther McCoy that complement the overall artistry of Parks’ words. Do not expect an historically-accurate picture of the Civil War here. It is a mix of modern and period language, setting, and clothing, which does not detract from the story, but instead makes it feel more present and immediate.

Members of the company of  Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3  by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Liz Diamond.  Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.

Members of the company of Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Liz Diamond. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2018.

These first three parts focus on the story of Hero (James Udom), an African-American slave working on the property of his master, The Colonel (Dan Hiatt). In Part One, we witness how Hero goes to be in the Civil War, serving his master as his valet (in exchange for his freedom), and the conflicts arising in Hero leaving his love, Penny (Eboni Flowers), and offered advice from fellow slaves, Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez) and Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones). In Part Two, the Colonel has captured a Union soldier (Tom Pecinka), which results in revealing conversations and revelations between the two captives. In Part Three, a resolution of sorts is found for Hero, Penny, and Homer with a surprising homecoming just after the recently-announced Emancipation Proclamation.

The standout performances for me are Mr. Pecinka and Mr. Martinez. Mr. Pecinka gives a well-rounded, powerful performance as Smith, the captured Union soldier with a surprising secret. I noticed that Mr. Udom’s strongest scenes were with Mr. Pecinka; when an actor raises the bar, other actors jump to meet it. Mr. Martinez, too, is excellent, presenting a complex, layered character in Homer, a rival for Penny’s affection and sometimes-nemesis to Hero.

The barren, Beckett-esque landscape by Riccardo Hernández – while anachronistic -  provides a hopeless backdrop to a war-torn South. The scrim used to create silhouettes of the various slaves as they exited the stage after Part One was hauntingly reminiscent of Kara Walker’s artworks, a combination of scenic design and lighting design by Yi Zhao.   

In ways, the play feels unresolved. This isn’t surprising given that this is one the first quarter of what’s proposed to come from Ms. Parks (it is wars after all). I much preferred Parts One/Two to Three: The first two parts created a poignant mood that gets lost for me in Three with the introduction of Hero’s dog. While Mr. Wallace goes a great job with the part, and I understand the need for some comedy relief, it led me astray emotionally. I wonder how Part Three would’ve felt to me without that character? It might’ve maintained that same sober tone that kept me immersed in the story. Despite my feelings about the third part, I think this play is a strong beginning to this epic work of the Black American hero.