Dallas — A few years ago, African American Repertory Theater tried without success to secure the rights to Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3. Co-founder and Executive Managing Director Regina Washington is now able to welcome audiences to the regional premiere of this award-winning play, which opens in the MVC Performance Hall at Mountain View College this weekend.
This work, one of Parks’ newer plays, was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Parks was awarded the Pulitzer in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog, becoming the first black woman to receive the award for Drama. Father Comes Home was awarded the Horton Foote Prize and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama. Working from her experience growing up in a military family, a motif in Parks’ life has been having a father who goes away to war, and then comes back from war. She decided to write a play around that theme. In 2014, New York Times theatre critic Christopher Isherwood said Father Comes Home from the Wars "might just be the best play I've seen all year."
Father is a long piece with a run time of almost three hours, but the story moves along, spanning approximately a year and a half of time during the Civil War. Each part of this Odyssean tale tracks our protagonist, Hero, at critical decision-making junctures. In Part I: A Measure of a Man, he is faced with a proposition—to earn his freedom from slavery, but only if he joins his master as a soldier for the Confederacy. In Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness, Hero’s loyalty is tested. Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts takes us back to the people awaiting Hero’s return.
Theater Jones talked with Washington about the production, starting with why AART wanted so much to present this play.
Regina Washington: It fits our mission and goals, which are to African-American history, the arts, and to telling our stories. Though this is a fictional work, it is relevant to the lives and journeys African-Americans are experiencing right now as well as what we’ve gone through in the past. I’ve always been a big fan of Suzan-Lori Parks. To be able to do the regional premiere of this fills us with pride. It is a large production for a small theatre company, but we decided it was worth the risk.
TheaterJones: Parks believes old stories guide us like a North Star, reminding us that history is happening every moment of every day. What in particular appeals to you about her works?
I was fortunate to be able to see Topdog/Underdog on Broadway. She has a unique voice which cannot be pigeonholed. She is broad and multi-faceted in her talents, writing not only the dialogue but original music for this play. For her to take the Civil War and spin it with a contemporary lens is just brilliant.
Music has an important presence in Parks’ plays. She has said she hears music in language, and in everything. How did you approach or consider the role of music in this piece as you worked on the production?
Music has always been part of our history as African-Americans, so for Parks to put the music in this work was key. She incorporates a broad range of different musical styles and interweaves a couple of the old familiar songs, i.e., Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around. During the original staging, the musician was onstage, but our space is not intimate, so we have found a different way of embracing that element. She places the songs at the back of the script and leaves the director freedom regarding how to use them.
In the script, Parks has emphasized words which one would not have expected, such as Service, and Word.
This play is like an onion, which is the beauty of her work. You keep peeling back and unpacking her words. She does not rely on the traditional language for this period.
We have talked about the paradigm shift in this country. During one rehearsal, an actor mistakenly interchanged the term ‘worth’ with ‘value.’ In this instance, the exchange could not happen, not simply because it wasn’t what was written on the page, but because the black man may have had worth as a possession, but he lacked value to his oppressor as a human being. It is essential that we use her words the way she wrote them.
What else would you like the audience to know as they make plans to see this show?
The play is not short, but it does move and will not feel long. I hope the public embraces Parks’ work. Even though it is a period piece [set in] the 19th century, it is so relevant to the times in which we are living. This is a play for everyone.
Or as the playwright herself says, “It’s like a family play in that no one is left behind. No one is off the hook.”