Hello from London, my home for the next year or so. I've been getting myself acquainted with the sprawling theatre industry here, and in-between the tangle of bureaucracy and settling into the city I managed to get reasonably-priced tickets for a few shows. One of them was Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts I, II & III) at the Royal Court Theatre, a show I'd been longing to see when I first heard it had opened in New York two years ago. I'd given up all hope of seeing it – until I realised to my delight that it was in fact playing in London.
Set against the turbulent American Civil War in 1862, Father Comes Home From The Wars unpacks one man's agonising choice. A slave, known to all as Hero, must decide between two terrible things: to stay home and be a slave and servant forever, or to go to war with his master on the "wrong side", fighting for the pro-slavery Confederates, with the tantalising possibility of gaining his freedom at the end. It's the sort of play that gnaws at you, slowly but insistently, and then leaves you gasping at the end.
We hear about Hero first before seeing him, as a chorus of farmhands on the same Texas property bicker and bet precious items as to whether he will fight or stay. And when he does stride onto the stage, he stands, quite literally, head and shoulders above everyone else, a veritable Greek demigod of a man ("Hero is as he was born: Big, brave, smart, honest and strong"). And there is a strong sense of the Greek epic in this three-hour, three-act play, with its nod to a Sophocles-type performing structure with a core of three actors in every scene and a chorus that comments on the unfurling action, not to mention that our hero is Hero and has a dog named Odd-See (a sly nod to The Odyssey, in case you were wondering), and that our Hero goes on a journey to fight a war and gains a name he has chosen for himself, Ulysses – after the Union general Ulysses S. Grant, but also the Latin name for Odysseus, he of Homer's epic poem of adventure and loss that is set during the Trojan War. There is also, incidentally, a character named Homer, and a Cassandra-like figure in Hero's lover Penny (named for Odysseus' lover Penelope), who sees signs and portents, and dreams of him. Parks sets up this structural metaphor skilfully, reclaiming a trampled, trodden-down history and elevating it to the same plane as the plays that were once created for an audience of the gods.
I don't think this production, which could be considered by all means an historical play, can be dissected as a separate entity from the present-day #BlackLivesMatter movement and ongoing police brutality protests that have taken shape and also shaken America over the past two years. Parks has been remarkably prescient in her ability to negotiate and navigate the concept of "freedom" – both a collective freedom and an individual freedom – and how it applies to a wide swathe of a country's population. From the domestic setting of the first act, to the war-time chaos of the second, and then to the post-war uncertainty of the final act, Hero-Ulysses must make crucial decisions about his personal freedom, and the lengths to which he will go to attain it. What is the price of freedom – and what are the sacrifices made when one has been conditioned to live without it?
I found myself initially chafing at Steve Toussaint's portrayal of a mild, ambivalent Hero in the first act: Why so ineffectual, so indecisive? I thought. You're supposed to be a hero! But Hero was never meant to be a hero, even if he may look the part and even if everyone else deems him so. And in the same way, Parks gradually reveals that the concept of freedom isn't defined by one person; it depends on the majority's definitions and expectations of freedom. This also extends to perceptions of a man's worth – first debated baldly and uncomfortably in dollar and cents as it applies to the price of a slave, and then on a deeper level as the characters grapple with what it means to be a free man and to "own one's self". There's also some very, very clever and striking use of Confederate and Union uniforms as a visual metaphor to contrast between man's interior convictions, what he believes to be true, and his exterior facade, how he conforms to society. In the second act, Hero encounters a captured Union soldier on the battlefield, who tries to explain what freedom means. Hero cannot comprehend it.
HERO: Who will I belong to?
SMITH: You'll belong to yourself.
HERO: So – when a Patroller comes up to me, when I'm walking down the road to work or what-have-you and a Patroller comes up to me and says, 'Whose n***** are you, N*****?' I'm gonna say, 'I belong to myself'? (...) 'I belong to the Colonel', I says now. That's how come they don't beat me. But when Freedom comes and they stop me and ask and I say, 'I'm my own. I'm on my own and I own my ownself,' you think they'll leave me be?
SMITH: I don't know.
HERO: Seems like the worth of a Colored man, once he's made Free, is less than his worth when he's a slave.
And just as the choice of Freedom hangs over Hero's head like the sword of Damocles, so does his idea (or his ideated idea) of home. During the second act, the house in which he lives is suspended over the stage to, on a practical level, clear the stage for a battlefield scene, but to me personally, on a metaphorical level, felt like the ever-present and looming fixation on a warm, familiar home that exists, somewhere on the horizon. But by the time that home is lowered back onto the ground, everything has already changed, irrevocably. Odysseus returns home from the Trojan War, triumphant, to his beloved Penelope, but Parks isn't as optimistic about her faux-Ulysses. The civil war is over, but the larger, longer, and harder war has only just begun.
- What an astonishing cast. The Royal Court run featured: Steve Toussaint (Hero), Leo Wringer (The Oldest Old Man), Jimmy Akingbola (Homer), Nadine Marshall (Penny), John Stahl (Colonel), Tom Bateman (Smith), Dex Lee (Odyssey Dog – personally my favourite character), Sibusiso Mamba (Chorus Leader/First Runaway), Jason Pennycooke (Second/Second Runaway), Sarah Niles (Third/Third Runaway). And not to mention the masterful music director and arranger Steven Bargonetti, who plays a narrative role of sorts as he accompanies the action on banjo and guitar, with songs written by Parks.
- Hovering in my mind, what Toni Morrison said many years ago: “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” (Emphasis my own.)
- The play runs till Oct 22, tickets from £12 here.