Suzan-Lori Parks is nothing if not ambitious. Her play Father Comes Home from the Wars, first seen in 2014 at the Public Theatre in New York, is a highly acclaimed three-part epic set during the Civil War but seen through contemporary eyes. Drawing inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, with a pinch of Aeschylus’s Oresteia thrown in, Parks – the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for drama – combines Greek myth with history in telling the story of a strapping slave called Hero, who in 1862 is faced with a dilemma, the outcome of which changes his life.
In the first of the play’s three segments, set outside a small cabin on a farm in Texas, Hero (Steve Touissant) is promised his freedom by his unscrupulous Master (John Stahl) but only if he agrees to go to war with him against the Yankees, who want to abolish slavery.
Hero’s wife Penny (Nadine Marshall), as well as several other of the plantation’s slaves, plead with him not to go, as the duplicitous Master cannot be trusted to keep his promises. “I will be helping out on the wrong side,” laments Hero. “That sticks in my throat and makes it hard to breathe.” All the same, he opts for the battlefield, a decision prompted by the guilt that still haunts him for the part he once played in recapturing Homer (Jimmy Akingbola), a fellow slave attempting to escape.
The second segment takes place in a forest where Hero’s master, now a colonel accidentally separated in battle from his regiment, has in his captivity a wounded Union soldier named Smith (Tom Bateman), temporarily imprisoned in a rickety wooden cage. In what is by far the best (albeit the preachiest) sequence of the trilogy, the issues under observation – the inhumanity of slavery, the meaning of freedom, the nature of identity (the colonel emerges as a man both brutal and sentimental), and the value of liberty and loyalty – are discussed and even demonstrated. The act ends with a surprise twist.
The almost surreal final segment is the weakest. Overstuffed with classical illusions that include a talking dog (Dex Lee) called Odd-see (get it?) who serves as a motor-mouthed Greek chorus, the act’s main thrust sees Hero (who has changed his name to Ulysses) return from the war with his promise of freedom predictably unfulfilled, to discover that in his absence his wife Penny has temporarily taken up with Homer. The trilogy ends as Penny, Homer and the other slaves quit the plantation in search of their freedom, leaving Hero/Ulysses and his shaggy dog in limbo.
In all of this, Parks’ primary concern has less to do with the inhumanity of slavery – a well-worn subject about which there is not a great deal more to be said – than the worth and value of a slave after he or she has gained their freedom. It is this very point that obsesses Hero. “Seems like the worth of a coloured man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave,” he says. “As a slave I’m worth something, so me running off would be like stealing. Where’s the beauty in being worth nothing?”
This is the crux, the very heart of the play, and in context, its logic is irrefutable. Three hours, however, is a long time to make a point. And it doesn’t end here. There are, we’re told, a further six plays to come as part of an epic cycle that will trace the history of African Americans from the Civil War to the present.
Though there are some wonderful flashes of poetry in the writing, the mish-mash of styles – drunkenly veering from drama to comedy, realism to surrealism, blank verse to audience asides – makes for a wearying and often pretentious evening. Add to this the omnipresent accompaniment of a twanging guitar (courtesy of Steven Bargonetti) playing and singing songs by the author, the overall results lurch toward excess, to say the least.
Under Jo Bonney’s scrupulous direction, though, the fully committed, predominantly British cast – give or take the occasional wobbly accent – is excellent, especially Toussaint, Bateman, Akingbiola and Marshall.