As I took my seat after Intermission at ART’s production of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3), I was struck that Suzan-Lori Parks’ historical drama is first cousin to another epic of another disenfranchised group in another era: Angels in America. The two plays share structural similarities. Both spread out over multiple performances, though Ms. Parks’ next installment, (Parts 4,5,6…) is still gestating. Both utilize the same actors in multiple roles to highlight dichotomies of human nature. The runaway slaves in Part 3 are more poignant having been the plantation slaves in Part 1. Both make individual stories universal through telling them as fables. The actors front the audience; they even refer to us. Dialogue bounces between members of the aptly named chorus without the pretense of actual conversation. Ms. Parks tells a mammoth tale from the perspective of the least significant, yet most affected, participants.
Father Comes Home from the Wars’ connection to Homers’ The Odyssey is more direct than its analogy to Angels in America, but once the link to Tony Kushner’s play lodged in my head, the more satisfying it became. Hero, Ms. Park’s main character, is a flawed hero, if he’s hero at all. His charisma instills more devotion from those around him than his actions. In that way he’s related to Prior Walter, another imperfect leading man. Each play relies on an omniscient external force to relay its truth, though its telling that an angel delivers the message to the world of gay men, while a dog delivers it to the world of slaves.
The two plays also share a pattern of reporting action occurring elsewhere. At first I was annoyed by Ms. Parks’ tendency to tell rather than show, just as Angels keeps us cooped up in Prior’s bedroom. Until I realized that was the point – we don’t need to see the Main House or the actual battle to understand that the events shaping these slaves’ lives are outside their direct control, just as Prior is incapable of controlling his disease.
Perhaps the most satisfying analogy is that both Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) and Angels in America are so well written. Tony Kushner’s subtitle, A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, would have been pompous except that it’s true. One dying man’s rants reveal a disturbingly wide spectrum of human behavior, while Ms. Parks covers a comparable range of insight from a shanty porch.
I can’t applaud very aspect of ART’s production. The set is innocuous; too literal to spark imagination, too stark to add drama. The raked walkway without beginning or end that occupies upstage is lifted straight out of The Color Purple but is less well executed. ART’s renown for flawless execution fall short, particularly when spots fail to pick up Steven Bargonetti’s amazing guitar and banjo picking song interludes that bridge transitions. Benton Greene is adequate as Hero, but less engaging than his supporting players. This is especially true in Part 3 when, after Jacob Ming-Trent’s phenomenal bit as Odyssey Dog, the play falls flat for several minutes. After writing such a loving, comic, thoughtful canine monologue, which is performed to maximum effect, even Ms. Parks must accept that it’s impossible to follow a great animal act.
These shortcomings are mere quibbles compared to the power of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3). For the lights, sets, music, and actors all exist in service to the language, and the language is three hours of the most thoughtful poetry to ever grace a stage.
Walking home from the theater, I considered how Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) does for African-Americans what Angels in America did for gays. Until I realized that was wrong. Angels in America did not catapult the consciousness of gay men, their consciousness was already set. The power of Tony Kuscher’s play was to force that consciousness onto the rest of our culture. I imagine that African-Americans already understand the rage, the futility, the compromises their ancestors made to exist, and thrive, under slavery. Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) doesn’t need to raise that consciousness. Instead, at a time when questions of race and equality are as raw and relevant as ever, Suzan-Lori Parks deepens slavery’s pain for the rest of us. We cannot participate in this play and then look away.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1,2,3) plays at ART through March 1, 2015.