Stay or go: A Hero’s dilemma in ‘Father Comes Home’

by Hugh Hunter
Posted 6/6/24

Just in time for "Juneteenth," Quintessence Theatre presents "Father Comes Home from the Wars, (Parts 1, 2 and 3)" by Suzan-Lori Parks.

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Stay or go: A Hero’s dilemma in ‘Father Comes Home’


Just in time for "Juneteenth," Quintessence Theatre presents "Father Comes Home from the Wars, (Parts 1, 2 and 3)" by Suzan-Lori Parks. The play honors the lives of enslaved African Americans in antebellum Texas, ending with a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and the recognition of their authentic status: "Free but not free."

For her ambitious project, Parks conscripts Homer's "Odyssey." Like James Joyce, she uses the Greek epic as an ironic, skeletal background against which more contemporary historical events play out. The lead character is "Hero," later dubbed "Ulysses." His faithful dog is "Odyssey," (also called "Odd-See" owing to the uncoordinated cast of his eyes).

Part 1 of the play cycle is rooted in a simple premise: "Boss-Master" turned "Colonel" (Peter Bisgaier) is going to war. He offers the enslaved Hero (Kelechi Udenkwo) freedom in exchange for serving as the Colonel's valet and factotum. Hero is understandably conflicted. "I will be helping out the wrong side...The wrong of it."

It is an effective setup for exploring a tortured slave identity. The core question Hero asks himself is "How much am I worth?" He knows Boss-Master bought him on the open market for $500. Hero wonders if he would be worth less as a "freed colored," then delivers the play's most notable line: "I'm worth something, so me running off would be like stealing." But Hero is not so slavishly honest with his brethren.

Fellow enslaved person Homer (Eric Carter) rivals Boss-Master as his major nemesis. More clear-sighted and incisive than Hero, Homer once tried to escape and paid a terrible price. He mocks Hero's consternation, enslaved people have no choices, but are only given "the same coin flipped over and over."

Hero's agony is the soul of Part 1, "A Measure Of A Man." His father (Monroe Barrick) joins him in indecision. Wife Penny (Deja Anderson-Ross) urges Hero to stay. At the same time, female chorus members Jordan Fidalgo and  Ivana R. Thompson treat Boss-Master's proposal as a joke and place bets on Hero's decision.

Director Raelle Myrick-Hodges can do little to shorten the play cycle's three-hour running time. But her production is lush. She takes advantage of the uncluttered set design by Meghan Jones that gives the actors great freedom of movement. Special light and shadow effects by Isabella Gill create the sense of a wooded area with the sun casting tree silhouettes on the walls.

Using Tiffany Bacon's costume design, characters are dressed in gorgeous clothes, not the drab garb you would expect enslaved people to wear. It suggests defiance and some measure of agency but is implausible. Boss-Master presents Hero with gray rags instead of a fancy-dress Confederate uniform --- more the naturalistic norm.  

Part 2, "Battle In The Wilderness," is the most dramatic of the three sections.  Boss-Master, now a Confederate colonel, is separated from his unit. He holds Captain Smith (Donovan Whitney), a Union officer, captive in a rustic wooden cell. In the distance, you hear the booming canons of both armies. Which will arrive first?

Though swaggering and sadistic, Bisgaier makes you sense the colonel's vulnerability, needing to persuade Capt. Smith of the rightness of his views, ("I thank God I was born a white man") yet dependent on the services of the enslaved Hero. As Capt. Smith, Whitney smolders in near silence, the possessor of secrets he dares not disclose.

In Part 3, "The Union Of My Confederate Parts," Hero returns home. Like Penelope in the Odyssey, wife Penny surprises him with an altered household, and enslaved people who have run away bond with Homer to form a new action plan. But the war has changed Hero (now named Ulysses). He brings surprises, too.

Since its Off-Broadway 2014 debut, the production history of "Father Comes Home" has been checkered. The play is as long as "Gone With The Wind" and, in a different way, equally romantic. Its length helps explain the reluctance to produce it. (Parks promises to write two more play cycles of equal scope.)

The sound design by Michael Kiley uses a gospel and bluesy version of a Greek chorus, which helps enliven the show. Along with costume, Parks' dialogue surprises you, mixing slangy modern dialect (like "true that") with anachronistic language (like "mark," in the sense of "take heed"). 

It is as though playwright Parks needs surprises to perk up slow-moving drama. One of the more entertaining touches is the emergence of Hero's dog Odyssey as a character. In Part 3, Steven Anthony Wright turns in a cameo performance as the sniffing canine tells everyone about Hero's war experience.

Such surreal touches are humorous but muddle the play's tone, papering over dramaturgical weakness with sideshow comedy. Despite strong performances in all the lead roles, "Father Comes Home" feels like a work in progress.

Quintessence Theatre is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. "Father Comes Home from the Wars" will run through June 23. Tickets available at 215-987-4450.