Video: Homer (Jaime Lincoln Smith) and Penny (Aimé Donna Kelly) argue with Hero (Kamal Angelo Bolden) about whether he should go to the war or stay home.
By Sheri Flanders
What is the measure of a man? Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks filters this heady question through American history and distills quite a few truths about our present in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3).” This three-act, three-hour-long epic flies by under Niegel Smith’s direction and leaves you immediately desperate for Parts 4 – 9. We follow the story of Hero (Kamal Angelo Boden) a Texas slave who faces a choice that isn’t a choice—fight alongside his master with the Confederacy for a chance at freedom or death, or live and die a slave on the plantation.
Each act begins unceremoniously with Chicago-based blues musician Melody Angel as a roving troubadour, commanding the stage with a halo of an afro; part bard, guardian angel and a witness to stories of enslaved African-Americans lost to the darkness of the shame of our country. The first act opens on plantation life with people creating joy and meaning in the face of unspeakable cruelties. Parks strikes a surprising tone that elicits both full belly laughs and the wry teeth-sucking laughs that come when a verbal dagger of truth strikes home.
Boden is a stellar performer, bringing depth, nuance and gentleness to Hero, a young man carrying the weight of the terrifying fear of hope in the face of impossibility. We are riveted as he struggles to grow into his adulthood and tests his integrity against the evils of the Confederate south. The rest of the sparkling ensemble is equally talented. Aimé Donna Kelly gives a breathtaking performance as Penny, a devoted young woman waiting for the return of her love; a multifaceted Jaime Lincoln Smith as good friend Homer who bears the burden of the shortcomings of lesser men; and William Dick brings chameleon-like range to the character of Colonel, an unrepentant slave-master who delivers a wonderfully squirm-inducing monologue about whiteness that, terrifyingly, does not sound antiquated.
Sydney Charles (Second), Jacqueline Williams (Leader), Ernest Perry Jr. (The Oldest Old Man), Michael Aaron Pogue (Fourth), Ronald L Conner (Third) and Kamal Angelo Bolden (Hero). Photo by Liz Lauren.
How does one thrive under tyranny? Much the same way as we do now, it turns out. The set and stage (Courtney O’Neill) are a white-on-white embossed confederate flag, existing as a metaphor for white supremacy; just invisible enough to fade from the consciousness and be forgotten for brief moments of joy, yet brought into sharp relief, illuminated by the searing fire of injustice.
As we move through acts 2 & 3, Parks introduces us to details of our history that are missing in our greater public consciousness. Rather than merely spewing facts, we feel what it truly meant to be owned and to contemplate owning another. The clichéd phrase “Choose your own family” means something much more concrete in the face of relatives being sold away or murdered on a whim. What does marriage mean when your body is not your own?
Slaves facing the choice whether to comply, flee, or fight takes on double meaning reflected against the backdrop of those attempting to resist the tyranny our current administration, and the cancer of police violence spreading across the nation. Parks’ epic successfully argues that this is not a new ailment, but the metastasizing of a malignant tumor that we failed to cut out, threatening to destroy our fragile democracy.
How does one change a world where the value of a man is tied to his compliance with his own consumption? I am not sure, but those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and there are undoubtedly valuable lessons to be learned in the breathtakingly entertaining play. Misplace yourself at the Goodman for “Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3,” the most enjoyable history lesson on stage since Hamilton.
Father Comes Home From The Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3 runs May 25 – June 24, 2018, at the Owen Theater at the Goodman. Tickets available at www.goodmantheatre.org/Father 312-443-3800