Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog,” doesn’t mess around much with the small stuff. Her themes are writ large; previous titles include “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World” and “The America Play.” Her style reflects an intentional combination of the classically refined and contemporary, self-conscious theatricality. She writes about history but also about writing about history, and, more specifically, performing history. And although her work expresses deeply thoughtful structural ambition and can be packed with literary allusions, Parks is also a very intuitive artist; she cares just as much about the sound — the musicality — of her language as she does about any interpretable meaning.
‘Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’
When: Through June 24
Where: Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn
Run time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, with two intermissions
That combination of thematic depth, structural ambition, and lyricism – and, importantly, plenty of humor too — makes the Odyssey-inspired “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),“ now onstage at the Goodman in a smoothly grand production directed by Niegel Smith — a rich, powerful experience.
Each of the three parts can probably best be thought of as a separate movement within the same symphony. Each forms a distinct play, with its own beginning, middle and end. They also have different styles — the first and third have choruses like a Greek tragedy, the second is a contemporary-feeling three-person play. But they are also all of a piece: all begin and end with a blues guitar song performed by onstage musician Melody Angel; all are set during the Civil War; and all follow the same character, Hero, who we see deciding to go off to war, during the war, and returning home from it. (This trilogy is also part of something larger — Parks has talked of a total of nine parts in all, and given the plural “Wars” in the title, the future expansions will certainly span an even greater history.)
In Part 1, the often anti-heroic Hero (Kamal Angelo Bolden), one of about ten slaves owned by a southern Colonel, must decide whether to follow his master/owner into war on behalf of the Confederacy, which of course would mean siding against his own freedom. And yet the Colonel has offered Hero that very freedom in return for accompanying him, a promise which the Colonel has made before without fulfilling. Hero’s father figure, the Oldest Old Man (Ernest Perry Jr., capturing the conflict of wisdom and self-interest), thinks he should go; his wife Penny (Aime Donna Kelly, presenting fierce loyalty) thinks he should stay; his friend Homer (Jaime Lincoln Smith, understanding the idea of a frenemy) thinks he should escape instead. There’s no good choice, of course — as Homer reminds him, no matter which way the coin flip lands, the coin won’t be going into Hero’s pocket.
In Part 2, we meet the Colonel (William Dick, who gets the idea of a small man enlarging himself through cruelty to others), who has been separated from his troop and holds hostage an injured Yankee captain (Demetrios Troy, communicating the mix of cleverness and desperation). Both sides of the war are encroaching, with characters trying to determine who will arrive first. Hero has yet another chance to escape, and yet chooses once again to play the role he was assigned by fortune. Hero thinks of freedom as something he very much wants, and yet he also struggles to imagine it. If he was free, what would he be worth if not his purchase price? In a moment of particular contemporary resonance, he wonders what would happen when a representative of the law approached and asked him who he belonged to, and he answered, “I belong to myself.” The question lingers, and Bolden, excellent throughout, is simply perfect here, playing several contradictions all at once — confused and dismissive, fearful and proud — as he holds up his arms in a timeless gesture of precarious surrender.
In the final act, Hero returns home, but he is no longer the same Hero. He has given himself the name Ulysses, which in the narrative world of the play refers to General Ulysses Grant, but also alludes to the lead character of Homer’s Odyssey, which is, not coincidentally, about a man journeying home from a long war. The character Homer, meanwhile, has been sleeping with Penny, even though she has been dreaming of her husband’s return. This last part becomes a contemplation of the shifting nature of identity, and the forces of loyalty and betrayal. Representing pure loyalty, Hero’s lost dog returns, in the figure of a human (BrittneyLove Smith) and delivering some of the funniest moments of an evening that can be heavy but never dull.
This is wondrous writing, with beautiful language, resonant storytelling, and an ambitious use of the theatrical form itself. Plays don’t get much more aesthetically expressive, or impressive, than this.
Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.