Suzan-Lori Parks loathes safe theater. The “insidious, schmaltz-laden mode of expression threatens to cover us all, like Vesuvius, in our sleep.” She writes “don’t be afraid to show your ass” plays to “defend dramatic literature against becoming a theater of schmaltz. The last thing American theater needs is another lame play.”
Parks, who studied playwriting under James Baldwin, won the Pulitzer Prize for Top Dog/Underdog in 2002 (the first African-American woman so honored), and the 2017 PEN American Literary Award for Master American Dramatist. Her works, she writes in “Elements of Style,” mess with fixed dramatic forms, “ask questions, ask more questions, and take nothing for granted.”
Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, & 3 begins her projected nine-play cycle about the African-American experience from slavery to the present. It also continues her assault on conventional theater, starting with the title.
Read “father comes home from the wars” and you assume a narrow range of possibilities: “father” will be a hero, or wounded, or in a body bag; he may be disillusioned or have PTSD. His home and family will have limited possibilities as well.
But in the first three plays of the cycle, no “father” comes home, and there’s only one war, the American Civil War. Hero, a West Texas slave, follows his cruel “boss-master” to the Confederate front. By the time Hero comes home, in play #3, he’s changed so much he might become his boss-master.
Another example. Parks makes repeated references to Homer’s Odyssey. After a 20-year absence, Odysseus comes home from the Trojan War to his still-faithful wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus. Parks even gives characters Homeric names: Hero’s wife is Penny (Penelope?); a man named Homer (not blind, like the poet, but missing a foot); and a dog named Odd-see/Odyssey dog, because each eye looks in a different direction.
But if anything, the three plays contradict the Odyssey point-for-point. Penny was only partially faithful. Hero changes his name to Ulysses (after the Roman name for Odysseus or for General Ulysses S. Grant?) and is far from heroic. In effect, Parks frees her story from stereotypes and routine expectations. Unlike today’s “safe” theater, her plays are out of your control.
The trilogy does have a kind of order. The first, “A Measure of a Man,” begins before sunrise in early spring. A “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” — Parks shaking things up — bet whether or not Hero will follow his master to the front. Play #2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” takes place during the day, late summer, 1862. But there’s no physical “battle.” The Boss-master, a colonel, captured and caged a Union officer. Now he has two slaves (and at one point celebrates the joys of owning them and of being white). Play #3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” takes place back at the West Texas farm an hour before sundown, fall of 1863. As runaway slaves wait for nightfall, Hero, now Ulysses, returns changed. He wants his life with Polly the way it was — but with complications.
The sunrise-to-sundown, spring-to-fall timeframe links the trilogy, as do persistent questions. The most prominent: what is freedom? Here again, Parks skewers easy notions. Freedom’s an ideal, or is it? Could the unknown be worse than a familiar, albeit brutal, existence? Yes, says the Old Man with a racist stereotype: “if they time was they own, mark it, they’d be filling it up with foolishness.” Homer fights back: no matter what’s to come, “freedom’s better than this.”
Parks wants a production to match her no-fly zone against stereotypes. She uses “slightly unconventional theatrical elements” to destabilize the stage picture and emancipate actors from conventional choices. Characters freeze in “their pure true state.” Others suddenly address the audience. All dress half-then, half-now (Jeanne Reith’s costumes for Intrepid Theatre include tennis shoes). They speak current slang (“true dat”) and fist-bump. There’s even a talking mutt: Odd-see tells a shaggy-dog story. Parks also wants her plays to “look and sound more like a musical score.”
Intrepid Theatre deserves thanks for staging one of the best, most important plays of our era. Park’s shake-up of traditional attitudes makes an audience pay special attention, and there were times on opening night when the proverbial pin could have dropped and resonated like a gong.
There were other times, however, when the cast made tamer choices than Parks would like. Instead of breaking character and boldly addressing the audience, actors made sly asides, in keeping with a more traditional framework. And often, rather than flowing like a musical score, empty pauses lulled the pace. Individual efforts stood out in what should be an ensemble piece (and may have become one by now). Foremost among them: Tom Stephenson’s stunning portrayal of the Colonel in part #2. He’s a thorough hate-monger but — Parks ruffles another stereotype — with a flicker of something else. Tamara McMillian (Penny) and Cortez L. Johnson (Homer) excel as the war-crossed lovers.
Parks says “history is time that won’t quit.” I can’t wait to see the rest of her cycle, since she’s off to such a blazing start.
Directed by Christy Yael-Cox; cast: Wrekless Watson, Tom Stephenson, Cortez L. Johnson, Rhys Green, Antonio TJ Johnson, Yvonne, Sean Yael-Cox, Tamara McMillian, Jim Mooney, Durwood Murray, Leonard Pattin; scenic design, Sean Yael-Cox, costumes, Jeanne Reith, lighting, Karin Filijian, sound, TJ Fucella.
Playing through November 5: Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; intrepidtheatre.org.