Sitting on the stage sideline, watching the first three parts of Suzan Lori-Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars” is like dressing for this winter weather. There are layers upon layers to this compelling, symbol-ridden Civil War trilogy, set in 1862-3, that explores basic themes of trust, truth, freedom, love, and the worth of a man.
In this Public Theater in New York and American Repertory Theater co-production, (deftly directed by Jo Bonney), Parks has established a timelessness, with characters harkening back to ancient Greek times. She borrows characters’ names and situations from poet Homer, then partially fast-forwards to contemporary times, with designer ESosa’s high-top sneakers, cargo pants, crocs, grungy contemporary garb, and the like - excluding Confederate and Union uniform coats and hats.
As theatergoers enter, Music Director Steven Bargonetti sets the trilogy’s tone, singing and strumming on stage, while seated on a rudimentary chair, in front of an 1862 slave shack. The lanky Bargonetti then sits near me, strums his acoustic guitar, and sings an introductory, narrative ditty, opening the next scene and introducing key characters.
Part I, entitled “A Measure of a Man,” opens in 1862, rural Texas. In the background, people traverse a ramp resembling a hill, while Lap Chi Chu’s lighting establishes the time of day and mood.
It seems some slaves, doubling as an ancient Greek chorus,are wagering whether the master’s faithful slave, Hero, (the master gave him that name), will leave his adoring wife Penny and accompany him to war, fighting for the Confederacy while tending to the master’s whims and needs - like a servant on a safari. Hero is faithful, not only to his master, the Colonel, but to Penny. If he goes, the master promised Hero his freedom - like he has a few times in the past. But this time, he means it, Hero says.
What to do?
The slaves wager bets. The Oldest Old Man (dynamic Harold Surratt) thinks Hero must make his own choice. He hates to see Hero go. He considers Hero his son, because Hero was placed in the old man’s care since babyhood,
But what about Hero’s faithful Odyssey dog? That dog, which talks, ran away, and hasn’t come back. The group considers the canine as a seer, so Hero is left to make his own decision.
Should he disable himself and cut off his foot, so he can stay with Penny? Threatening to kill Hero, the master had forced him to cut off his friend Homer’s foot, when Homer attempted to run away, so Hero did. The old man tries, but trembles. Hero waffles. Penny is eager to do it. But Hero decides to go, so she promises she’ll wait for his return.
In Part II, A Battle in the Wilderness, the shack is elevated,almost out of sight. Excluding a tree trunk, the stage is barren. Cannons explode in the distance. Hero, the Colonel, and their captive, a principled, Yankee white captain of black troops,whose says his name is Smith,(compelling Michael Crane) is wounded, his leg bloodied. The Colonel, who’s getting drunker, increasingly taunting and more despicably cruel, has confined his captive to a wooden cage. They’re in the middle of nowhere, caught between Confederate and Union lines.
Parks unfurls her story here, revealing the Colonel’s cruelty and inhumanity, contrasted by his captive’s staunch principles. He blanches at the Colonel’s humiliating treatment of compliant servant, Hero, yet boldly rebukes his terrifying treatment. “I am grateful every day that God made me white,” the Colonel declares. “No matter how low I fall, I’ll always be white.” In this barren setting, the three men’s actions and reactions are shocking nail-biters.
Ken Marks, who originated the role of the Colonel, says portraying him is difficult, because he’s everything Marks isn’t --- a likker-fueled racist slave owner, who enjoys inflicting emotional and physical pain.
Although Benton Greene sensitively and convincingly portrays Hero, the actor is the first generation American son of Barbados-Jamaican parents, and doesn’t share Hero’s heritage; yet he’s deeply committed to his role. Both Marks and Greene deliver searing performances.
So do Jenny Jules as Hero’s adoring wife, Penny; Sekou Laidlow as Hero’s staunch friend and fellow slave, Homer; and Jacob Ming-Trent in dual roles as Odyssey Dog and fellow slave. From Feb. 6 to March 1, Patrena Murray will replace Ming-Trent as the comic shaggy canine and slave.
Charlie Hudson III, Julian Rozzell Jr. and Tonye Patano round out this terrific cast.
The second act resumes a year later with Part III, The Union of My Confederate Parts, and Bargonetti strumming and singing us back to that shack, (thanks to set designer Neil Patel). A gathering of runaway slaves beg Homer to lead them away to freedom, while Penny waits faithfully for Hero’s return.
Homer loves Penny and wants her to join them.
Homer and Penny have lain with each other, but she loves Hero.
Suddenly, Odyssey Dog galumphs on the scene. He slathers, romps, slurps, and rolls around, happily returned from his long absence, bringing comic relief to the play’s heady suspense.
Penny joins the group, holding a letter from their mistress. The Colonel and Hero are dead, it says. But are they?
Odyssey can speak, and he does. Hero is coming home, he says. He’s right behind him. And he does. He’s a changed man, with a changed name he gave himself - and an important letter he doesn’t read to them. He also has gifts and more surprises.
Yes, I’ll leave you wondering, because this isn’t the end of the story. Its rapid twists change everyone’s fate in split seconds. Remember, Parks is working on parts 4-9 that will bring
us and the characters’ descendants into the 20th century; but so far, she’s holding us tightly in her grip, wanting more.
BOX INFO: World premiere of three-part, two-act, three-hour play, written by Suzan Lori-Parks, appearing at American Repertory Theater through March 1 at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Performances:Feb. 3-8,10-14,17-21, 24,28, at 7:30 p.m.; matinees, Feb. 4,7,8,14,15,18,21,22,25,28, March 1, at 2 p.m.; Feb. 11, at 11 a.m. Check for related events. Tickets start at $25. Call the Box Office at 617-547-8300 or visit americanrepertorytheater.org.