By Darlene Donloe
The west coast premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks’ new drama, Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, is a theatrical juggernaut.
It’s a powerful, heart-rending, at moments comical, play set during the Civil War.
The protagonist is a slave named Hero, played superbly and effectively by Sterling K. Brown (American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson). Hero has a decision to make. Although he’s been deceived with talks of freedom by his slave master before, on this particular occasion he is, once again, approached with the possibility of freedom if he joins his master, played with finesse by Michael McKean (Better Call Saul, This is Spinal Tap, Laverne & Shirley), in the ranks of the Confederacy. His master feels better and safe with Hero by his side.
While the decision seems to be cut and dry, after all, why wouldn’t he go for it? It’s not that simple. If he gets his freedom, he would be leaving behind the woman he loves as well as others he’s come to love. Can he trust master? He was enticed, once before, only to continue living his life as a slave.
The play poses the question about the true meaning of freedom, what it looks like, feels like, smells like and tastes like. The backdrop to this show is war, but not just the obvious Civil War. There is the war within one’s soul, the war within one’s familiar and the war within one’s community. Sometimes the battle one fights within themselves is much more devastating than the one that looms on the battlefield. That war is often futile.
Other slaves on the plantation are taking bets as to whether Hero will go off to war. Some are elated and others disappointed when Hero decides to go. He goes, however, – trusting his master’s word.
Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate
In one scene, in Part 2, Hero and his master, who is a Colonel, are lost in a forest after losing track of their regiment. They have some heart to heart conversations, especially as it relates to the capture of a Union soldier that the Colonel has imprisoned in a makeshift wooden cage. Part 2 is a significant act that speaks to the character of the three men.
Also in Part 2, Hero gives an impassioned speech to the Union soldier about his life being worth more as a slave than it would be if he was a free man.
“Seems like the worth of a colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave,” he says.
Sterling K. Brown
Brown is mesmerizing. His commanding voice and effectual acting moves the intense story forward. McKean lightens the festivities with his off-hand repartee. McKean has one of the best lines in the show. It nearly brings the house.
After breaking down talking about the death of his son, the Colonel says, “I am grateful every day that God made me white.” In full context the line is brilliant and full-on hilarious.
Roger Robinson is his usual brilliant self – engulfing the stage with every utterance and subtle movement.
Levity invaded the show in the form of a dog named Odyssey. Patrena Murray gives a hilarious performance as Hero’s dog. It’s a brilliant portrayal that brought levity to an otherwise hard story to swallow.
(l-r) Julian Rozzell Jr., Sameerah Luqmann-Harris,
Tonye Patano and Russell G. Jones
When Hero, who by Part 3 has changed his name to Ulysses, returns from the war - he is, not surprisingly, a different man. The day he returns, several slaves have decided to escape. For some reason he doesn’t reveal that he has a piece of paper that says slaves have been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Ironically, Hero/Ulysses’ first act as a freed man is to bury his master. It’s a powerful moment in an effective play.
This play could not be done with a bootleg group of actors. Lucky for Parks’ and Bonney, this entire cast give authentic performances, including guitarist Steven Bargonetti who sets up some scenes by playing little ditties stage left and stage right. The music works!
Director Jo Bonney (Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Pounding Nails In The Floor with My Forehead and Slanguage) has crafted an intricate production that, although is set during the Civil War, is surprisingly timely. Parks’ writing is convincing, inspired and emotive.
Neil Patel’s scarce set surrounds the stage. The costumes (ESosa), lighting (Lap Chi Chu) and sound (Dan Moses Schreier) sufficiently completes the show.
This production is highly recommended. Impressive writing, directing, story and acting.
Father Comes Home From The Wars, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Jo Bonney, stars in alphabetical order, Steven Bargonetti (“Father Comes Home…,” Public Theater; “Hair,” Broadway), Sterling K. Brown (“Father Comes Home…,” Public Theater; “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” FX), Russell G. Jones (“Father Comes Home…,” Public Theater; “Ruined,” Manhattan Theatre Company, Obie Award), Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris (“The Emperor Jones,” Irish Repertory Theatre; “Advantageous,” Sundance Special Jury Award), Michael McKean (“Better Call Saul,” AMC; “This is Spinal Tap;” “Harps and Angels,” Mark Taper Forum), Patrena Murray (“Father Comes Home…,” ART; “Julius Caesar,” Irondale Center), Tonye Patano (“Father Comes Home…,” Public Theater; “Weeds,” Showtime), Larry Powell (“The Christians,” Mark Taper Forum; “The Mountaintop,” Actors Theatre of Louisville), Roger Robinson (“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Tony Award; “Seven Guitars,” Tony nomination), Julian Rozzell Jr. (“Father Comes Home…,” Public Theater; “Boardwalk Empire,” HBO) and Josh Wingate (“Justified,” FX; “General Hospital”).
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Father Comes Home From the Wars gets an E (excellent).
Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; through May 15; $25-$85; (213) 628-2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.