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The Epic Begins: Suzan-Lori Parks Traces The Legacy Of Slavery And The Civil War At A.R.T.

Ken Marks and Benton Greene in "Father Comes Home from the War" at the American Repertory Theater. (Ken Marks and Benton Greene in "Father Comes Home from the War" at the American Repertory Theater. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)closemore
Ken Marks and Benton Greene in "Father Comes Home from the War" at the American Repertory Theater. (Ken Marks and Benton Greene in "Father Comes Home from the War" at the American Repertory Theater. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

It is said that every man has his price. Hero, the slave protagonist of Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3," purports to know his: It's the $800 a redneck Texas land owner paid to take him off the auction block. But, Parks has the chutzpah to wonder, would Hero's value go up or down if he were free? What, besides the marketplace and our limited choices, determines our merit?

"Father," which is now in the second leg of a world premiere production by New York's Public Theater and Cambridge's American Repertory Theater (at the Loeb Drama Center through March 1), is the first chunk of an anticipated epic: Parks intends six more plays, extending trom the tumultuous events of this trilogy to the present day. It's an ambitious project but one well suited to a writer unafraid to mesh history, tragedy, poetry, and whimsy. Who else but Parks would crown a contemplation of human worth, forced through the joint crucibles of "The Odyssey" and the American Civil War, with a talking dog? (A stand-in for Odysseus' cur, Argos, this one is called Odd-see for his wall eyes.)

Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for "Topdog/Underdog"), has a history with A.R.T. The haunting predecessor to "Topdog," "The America Play," premiered there in 1994, and Parks did the excellent cleaning and sharpening of the original book for "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess," which went from A.R.T. to Broadway. But "Father" is as far from "The America Play" and "Topdog," with their black Lincoln look-alikes letting white folks shoot at them, as it is from Catfish Row. Here Parks is in August Wilson mode, riffing not only on the warp and woof woven by slavery into African-American consciousness but also on big themes that include fidelity, integrity, identity, and free choice — the latter a dizzying concept to characters who have never had one.

Tonye Patano, Jenny Jules, and Benton Greene. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Tonye Patano, Jenny Jules, and Benton Greene. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

The new theater piece, initially conceived as a trilogy but now the start of a nine-play cycle, is set between spring of 1862 and fall of 1863 and divided into three plays. In "A Measure of a Man," a slave chorus places bets on whether Hero will follow his master into the Civil War as a sort of Confederate valet, in exchange for a dubious if tantalizing promise of freedom. In "A Battle in the Wilderness," the "Boss-Master," now a colonel, and his trusted factotem have wandered away from their regiment but captured a Yankee whose real identity comes as a life-changing revelation to Hero. And in "The Union of My Confederate Parts," Hero, self-christened Ulysses, returns from the war with a surprise for his true-blue if not exactly faithful wife, Penny. (Here Penelope's suitors from "The Odyssey" are replaced, suitably enough, by a slave called Homer, with whom Hero/Ulysses has some complicated unfinished business.) And yes, this is where the dog, a chatty canine riff on a Greek messenger bearing news from offstage, turns up.

Jenny Jules, Jacob Ming-Trent and Sekou Laidlow in "Father Comes Home From the War (Parts, 1, 2 & 2) at the American Repertory Theater. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Jenny Jules, Jacob Ming-Trent and Sekou Laidlow in "Father Comes Home From the War (Parts, 1, 2 & 2) at the American Repertory Theater. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

At A.R.T. the plays unfold against a spare set by Neil Patel that consists in parts one and three of a wooden slave cabin before a descending ramp and backdrop that, lit by Lap Chi Chu, change hues. (The ramp also makes for effectively formal and suspenseful entrances.) Though woods and fields are evoked, what we see are a few rocks and tree stumps and, in part two, a cramped cage for the captured Yankee soldier. The language and the acting are similarly, masterfully stylized, with Parks' text a lyrical mix of free verse, patois, and colloquialism that exudes both irony and truth. (Betting his meager possessions on whether Hero will go or stay in the first play, one slave chorister observes: "Funny, ain't it, owning things when you don't even own yrself?") And just to prove she's as clever as she is original, Parks makes Odyssey Dog's most often yipped utterance "Yep."

At the heart of the story, however, is whether Hero is indeed one. We are told of his trustworthiness, smarts, and strength. But the man bears a secret guilt, the exposure of which by Homer more or less forces Hero's decision in the first play. He is exposed to more opportunity in the second and indeed accomplishes a liberation he himself may never experience. But he remains with the despicable Colonel, convinced that, given his monetary worth, leaving would be "stealing." And when he returns home in the third play, it is with an awful if cavalier betrayal in his pocket — along with a battered copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Jo Bonney's production — which opened at the Public to acclaim in October and is restaged here with some cast changes — is extremely surehanded in its mix of Greek-tinged formalism and period feel, honest emotion, knife-wielding melodrama, and crazy spirit. Both characters and chorus address the audience directly. And the plays are bridged and punctuated by Parks' own catchy tunes, rendered on guitar or banjo and sung by music director Steven Bargonetti, who, when not performing, sprawls in a wooden chair on one side or the other of the action. In parts one and three, the performers alternate between classical gesture and just sittin' and commentin'. Part two is more naturalistic.

Michael Crane and Ken Marks. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Michael Crane and Ken Marks. (Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

As Hero (or Old Hero or non-Hero, as he sometimes calls himself), Benton Greene has a sufficiently forbearing, pained, and ebullient presence that his betrayals fail to condemn him: he's deep and deeply human. As Homer, Sekou Laidlow is cooler but more firmly committed. And as Penny, Jenny Jules is the warm, fierce heart of the piece. The second play, of course, provides a bravura opportunity for the odious, flask-toting, banjo-strumming Colonel, to whom Ken Marks brings both sadism and a sleazy charm. By contrast, Michael Crane is disarmingly natural as his Yankee captive, trying to recruit Hero for the other side.

Then there is Jacob Ming-Trent, reprising his New York turn as Odyssey Dog, identified as Hero's "luck" in the first play and brought to glorious life in the third. In furry sweater, sweat pants, and sneakers, rolling over to be scratched or thirstily affixing a bucket of water to his lively face, he bears the story of the war, into the thick of which we really have not been. Without him, the final play, its trepidating reach toward freedom marred by love lost, would be piercing but possibly too painful.

Carolyn Clay Theater Critic, The ARTery
Carolyn Clay, a theater critic for The ARTery, was for many years theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix.

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