Dallas — What is it for a slave to be faithful? Faithful to a mission? To a cause? To an ideal? To a master or to his people? For a free man, inherently endowed with an autonomous sense of agency, faithfulness is an active thing, rooted in will. A man or woman can be steadfast in their own right, but the insidiousness of slavery as an institution strips the slave of sovereignty and perverts the meaning of choice.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks confronts this concept, among others, in Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3). In this 2014 triptych, set in the American South during the Civil War, a slave—ironically named Hero—follows his sadistically cruel master into war under the hopeful promise of gaining his freedom in exchange. It comes to pass, however, that freedom may come in other forms, when a captured Union soldier offers Hero an alternative way out.
The internal dilemma captured in this script brilliantly mirrors that of American identity, and more specifically, African-American identity. Hero is paralyzed by his faithfulness—faithfulness to a deal struck with the devil; faithfulness to those he left behind on the farm; faithfulness to an idea of freedom so thoroughly corrupted that, in the end, even an official proclamation of emancipation is not enough to liberate the cast of characters from the cyclical degradation of identity that slavery has long ago instilled.
The African American Repertory Theater takes on Parks’ Homeric script in a regional premiere of the work, presented at the Mountain View College Performance Hall. Saturday night’s performance over opening weekend called out a modest crowd, but was rich with philosophical depth and reflection.
Regina Washington, co-founder and executive managing director of AART, brings together a somewhat unbalanced cast, but provides heft and meaning to the plot through direction that is as thematically sensitive as it is emotionally bare and vulnerable.
Aesthetically, the production blends period and contemporary influences into a portrayal that is almost Shakespearean. Prudence Jones’ set design draws little attention to itself; it is immersive enough to bring the audience into the suggested time and place while leaving necessary space for the imagination. It works well, in that the booming prose is able to rely on itself, separate from costumes and sets.
There are a few dramatic standouts in this cast. Christopher Dontrell Piper’s Hero—who later reimagines himself under the chosen name of Ulysses—is straightforwardly smoldering, almost entirely from start to finish. The drama of dilemma, and the perversion of choice, plays out convincingly in Piper’s interpretation, but the resulting impression is a character you may find, in many ways, pathetic and discomforting. His ever-spiraling confusion of moral priorities is just on the other side of endearing as he is tossed to and fro in the sweeping circumstances of his time—and all the while, Piper presents him with pointed surety and a slight air of arrogance.
On the other side of this is Chris Portley’s Homer—another slave on the farm who lost his foot long ago due to Hero’s betrayal. Portley’s ticks give Homer a simmering angst that feels liable to bubble over at any moment. His emotional range is one of the most energizing elements of this production, as he is at all times brooding, scorned, pragmatic, and most tragically, in love. Penny, the subject of his unrequited love and Hero’s long-waiting wife, is provided in only two-dimensions by Raven Lawes.
Christian Taylor and Drew Wall dominate the middle part of this production as the Colonel and Smith, respectively. Taylor’s portrayal of wily wit and imposing dominance make Colonel—Hero’s manipulative master—almost likable at moments. The Colonel is erratic, however; he exudes an unsettling aura of sadism as he discusses the monetary value of his valet, then swoops dizzyingly toward an admirable codependence...and back again. Smith, the captive Union soldier, is stoic and valiant in his defiance of southern ideals, and Wall confidently layers the character with the clever deceptiveness of a “colored” who can pass as white. Wall also serves as the musician who frames each part in the style of an antebellum minstrel.
Park’s epochal counter-narrative to the traditional historical approach to the Civil War is deep and clever. Her writing carries the tones of a Greek epic, fluidly prosaic and poetic, and with characters who are thoroughly tragic. I commend AART, Washington, and her cast for their work on this significant piece of theater. While there is more to be desired from some of the dramatic performances in the cast, the overall effect is undeniably thought-provoking. More to the point, though, this is a socially and politically necessary work, and I am therefore thankful that Parks’ fine play is being seen by North Texas audiences.