Set during the American Civil War, Suzan-Lori Parks’ trilogy Father Comes Home from the Wars charts the journey of a black slave in Texas, all the way to the war and back. When we first meet Hero – played by the brawny Steve Toussaint – outside his shack of a home, he has an ease of charm and endearing aura that makes you want to jump out of your seat and give him a big hug. However, when he returns to this shack in the final scene of the play he has become a broken, selfish man.
The way this play charts a black man’s individual journey through the Civil War, physically, mentally, and physiologically is a pleasure to watch. Not to mention the wonderful mix of characters we meet along the way; from a gaggle of quirky fellow farm hands to Hero’s “boss-master”, the Colonel (John Stahl) and a captive Union soldier, Smith (Tom Bateman) in a makeshift wooden cage.
The Greek Odyssey was used as a template for the productions and each play/section of the production is 50 minutes, flowing one into the other, and despite this two and a half hour play seeming a little daunting I can assure you, the time flew by. In fact at the end I left wishing it had gone on even longer.
In 2002 Parks was the first African-American woman to get a Pulitzer Prize for Drama with her play Topdog/Underdog, and helped in the production of Pulitzer Prize winning Hamilton in 2016. Father Comes Home from the Wars premiered at the Public Theatre in New York in 2014 and would become a Pulitzer Prize nominee finalist. When the show transferred to London the director, Jo Bonney, stayed on board and assembled a new, largely British, cast for its UK debut. He did however keep the brilliant Steven Bargonetti from the original production in the UK cast, a wise choice in my opinion. His beautiful guitar strumming, humming, and the raspy folk tone of his singing voice brought soul to the production, setting the scene beautifully for the historical era the plays explore.
The first part takes place in 1862, “A Measure Of A Man”, depicting Hero debating with himself, and his fellow slaves whether to go to war to fight for the wrong side, the Confederate, or stay home. At one point his wife; Penny (Nadine Marshall) wields a sharp knife above her head with the intention of cutting Hero’s foot off to keep him home. However, in the end his master’s promise of freedom if he goes to war and survives is too tempting of an offer to turn down.
In part two, “A Battle in the Wilderness”, the Colonel and Hero have lost their regiment and are stranded in what seems the middle of nowhere hoping to be found by the rest of their army. The Colonel has a wounded Union solider as his prisoner, and kills time by forcing his prisoner to guess the purchase-price he originally paid for Hero, an utterly degrading and humiliating ‘game’ for Hero who is forced to stand on a tree stump for inspection. However, near the end of this scene comes what I thought to be the most powerful and emotive moment of the entire play where the Colonel breaks down in tears at the thought of setting Hero free, saying it would be worse than when his son died, talking of how he would have to console his wife and hide his sadness.
Then just as you can feel yourself actually feeling sorry for this man, almost wishing Hero would agree to stay with him forever, the Colonel wipes his tears away and consoles himself by uttering the shockingly racist words of how: “[he is] grateful every day that God made me white”.
The play, I believe, is so brilliant because it doesn’t present the issue of slavery as purely black and white, good or bad, it presents all sides of the story, all sides of the situation and lets the audience form their own thoughts on the situations being presented to them. When speaking of what kind of a man he would be when he was free, Hero comes to the conclusion that through contemplating owning himself it “seems like the worth of a coloured man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave.”
The third installment, “The Union of my Confederate Parts”, sees Hero come home to Texas after the war to a very different home. I won’t tell you how it ends; you’ll just have to go see it!
Father Comes Home from the Wars is a story of race, slavery, and what it means to be free. A must see, especially considering these are only the first three parts of a nine-part series which hopes to chart the black civil rights movement to the present day.
4 stars from The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Independent, The Stage, FT
At the Royal Court until the 22 October.
Tickets are cheaper on Mondays and can be bought here: http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/fathercomeshome?utm_source=GoogleGrants&utm_medium=Website&utm_campaign=FatherComesHome&gclid=CNnMiOC51c8CFQkSGwodpj8NvA