In the opening scene of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, a series of characters, all black slaves in Civil War Texas, hold out their palms and extend their thumbs horizontally, squinting at the horizon. Even though standing on dry land, they are navigators, measuring the imminence of the sunrise and their position relative to the north star. The gesture, which becomes a motif, holds a poignant double meaning in Parks’s three-act drama. In the scene, they are measuring the time before one of their number must decide whether to join the Confederate army as his master’s servant or disobey him and face the consequences.
In a larger sense, though, the characters are measuring their place in an unfolding history that has not, and maybe cannot, be fully told. Parks’s achievement in Father Comes Home from the Wars is not only in giving the Civil War back to the black slaves who fought in it and were freed by it. It is also in frustrating any attempt to turn that war into a romantic tale of tragedy or liberation, forcing us to chart new maps of our own past.
The play’s protagonist, ironically named Hero and played with an understated humility by James Udom, is lured into the war by his master’s promise of freedom for his service. Offered the chance to run away instead, Hero refuses a “stolen freedom” full of “grabbing” and “snatching.” We see the price of his loyalty in Act Two, in which he is manipulated and bullied by his master, a pompous and drunken colonel given a self-effacing, pathetic charm by Dan Hiatt. The Colonel has captured a Union soldier (played with a smoldering nobility by Tom Pecinka) and taunts him with the thrill of owning another man. When the soldier describes to Hero the freedom he’s seen in the north, Hero is skeptical again, imagining that freedom in a racist country will look an awful lot like grabbing and snatching. In Act Three, we see Hero finally emancipated — his master dead by his own foolishness, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his pocket — and returned home with a new name: Ulysses. But just as he was no Hero, now he’s no Ulysses.
The final scene will disturb audiences who want to see in their protagonist a moral compass. But Parks has made the powerful decision to represent the Civil War as a war, full of every war’s moral degradations and distortions. Riccardo Hernández’s set design tells the story most vividly: a corrugated metal home front in the first act, large beams of steel representing war’s cruelty in the second act, and then the two sets combined in the third act, when the war come home. Full of height and empty space, the sets shrink the actors so that their every action feels burdened by a history they are hardly responsible for. The Civil War is an extension of the violence of slavery, and the two cannot be easily disentangled.
Among an impressive ensemble, Eboni Flowers as Hero’s wife Penny and Gregory Wallace as his dog Odyssey are best able to fill Hernández’s space. Flowers gives an impassioned and multicolored performance that “marks” — a word used to great effect throughout the script — each pain that war wreaks on her world, before her character boldly seizes an alternative freedom for herself. Odyssey, who has a lot more to say than “woof,” is a role crafted to steal the third act, but he is also a model of loyalty that sets the rest of the play’s world into relief. Wallace captures this deeper role by avoiding the temptation to deliver a barrel of laughs. His dog is both sassy and sad, funny and sensitive, at once lovable and admirable. Julian Elijah Martinez also deserves a nod for his steadying hand as Homer, a brilliant slave crippled for his attempted escape, who has become a wise and clear-seeing foil to Hero’s naivety.
Director Liz Diamond, who helmed two of Parks’s earliest plays at Yale Repertory Theatre in the 1990s, wisely chooses to be unobtrusive here, allowing Parks’s own sense of theatrical magic to shine through. Parks knows how to use her medium to tell a story, particularly in the horrifying recreation of a slave auction in Act Two, which culminates in a revelation about race and identity that only the stage can convey. Parks also wraps her play in music, composed by her and mostly sung by a balladeer (talented San Francisco-based musician Martin Luther McCoy), who sits in front of the stage trying, it seems, to make sense of the unconventional hero who stands before him. McCoy is a grounding force in this epic confrontation with all we think we know about our national history of racism and war. The play, we are promised, is the start of a new cycle by Parks. Let’s hope the next installment visits New Haven before long.
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 runs through Apr. 7 at the University Theatre, 222 York Street. For tickets and more information, visit Yale Repertory Theatre’s website or call (203) 432-1234.