“How much you think we’re gonna be worth when Freedom comes?”
There is scheduled to be at least another six parts to Suzan-Lori Parks’ ambitious play cycle but don’t let that put you off, the three hours of Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) are well spent in exploring race, slavery and the US civil war and how its pernicious legacy permeates through even to contemporary (US) society. Jo Bonney’s production is not always the easiest to watch but then how could it be, rather it seeks to provoke serious thought and consideration about what it meant – and what it still means – to be free.
To take on such a grand narrative and possibly to alleviate some of the intense seriousness, Parks has playfully borrowed from a range of storytelling techniques, most notably the Greeks, And through them establishes her interpretation of the African-American experience – the magpie nature of Emilio Sosa’s costume design with details both period and present-day, reinforcing the continuing relevance of its message.
Part 1: A Measure of a Man sets us in West Texas in 1862 where slave Hero is given the chance to get his freedom from the plantation if he’ll join his Confederate master in battle. His wife, father and fellow slaves are split on whether he do it, conscious that the master has reneged on similar promises in the past, and discuss it at length. Sharper is Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness where Hero and his master have taken a Union soldier prisoner, provoking revealing conversations about slavery and freedom between the trio.
This section stands out – John Stahl is magnificent as the vituperative and racist Colonel and Tom Bateman handles the slippery role of the imprisoned soldier well, with Steve Toussaint’s impassive Hero at the centre, struggling to calculate his position in an uncertain world. Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts then returns Hero home to see just how much has changed – Nadine Marshall as his wife Penny and Jimmy Akingbola as sparring buddy Homer particularly well acted as they deal with the ramifications of continuing to live their lives.
That levity is in evidence here too though, Hero’s return home is prefaced by the arrival of a messenger in the form of a shaggy dog called Odd-See – an amusing and assured Dex Lee – which partners well with the musical interventions from Steven Bargonetti which are sprinkled throughout. It’s a different way of telling these stories, perhaps not as direct as one might expect, but a powerful one nonetheless – Father Comes Home From The Wars may be set an ocean away but you ignore its pertinence at your peril.