Suzan-Lori Parks has a lot of nerve. A few years back she wrote and organized something she called “365 Days/365 Plays,” which really was what its name suggested. Before that, in Topdog/Underdog, she put onstage a pair of black brothers who made their livings impersonating Lincoln and Booth, assassination included. (She won the Pulitzer Prize for it.) Her take on The Scarlet Letter, or rather one of her takes, was titled Fucking A. She often writes the songs that accompany her shows. She did something to Porgy and Bess that Stephen Sondheim didn’t like.
Well, all I can say is thank God for nerve. Without it, we’d have little but dining-room dramas: 90-minute arguments over salad. With it, we have Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars, a nine-part serial whose first three parts are now being produced as an evening-long work at the Public Theater. (Each part so far is about 50 minutes long.) Can one-third of something already be a masterpiece? Seems like it to me.
Part of what makes it so is that nerve — or call it confidence. Parks is willing, even in establishing a complicated story, to throw the audience curveballs from the start. The accustomed naturalism of plays about slavery and the Civil War is swept from the table in the first few lines, with an exposition that owes more to the Greek chorus (or French comedy maids) than it does to the traditions of the contemporary American stage. Though this section of the play is set outside a slave cabin on a small plantation somewhere in Texas, about an hour before dawn of a spring day in 1862, the four “Less Than Desirable Slaves” who tell us what’s going on with the story’s hero (named Hero) do so in a highly stylized language studded with light rhymes and verbal allusions to other periods. Parks gleefully reappropriates a whole grab-bag of minstrelsy with her jive talk and true dats and even an oh snap! Soon you begin to notice that the costumes (by ESosa) are doing the same thing. One slave wears cargo pants and argyle socks; The Oldest Old Man has on Crocs.
It’s a great gambit, preparing the way not only for the stylistic leaps to follow but also easing us into the daunting largeness of the story. Hero, we learn, faces as great a dilemma as has ever been faced in drama: He has been offered his freedom if he will accompany his master to war — on the Confederate side. And yet Parks delivers this information as genially as if it were a scene from Guys and Dolls, with the other slaves (including Hero’s not-quite-wife, Penny, and his not-quite-father, The Oldest Old Man) trying to predict, and even lay bets on, his decision. Our confusion about the style is soon mirrored in Hero’s about the content: He keeps changing his mind. His desire to remain with Penny, his doubt about his master’s trustworthiness, his distaste for fighting against his own people’s interests: All militate toward an answer of “no.” But then, on the other hand, there is the paradox of “freedom for my service.” Piling on details of Hero’s character and past deeds, not all of them good, Parks exquisitely twists the plot. She makes us feel as if we are seeing the dreadful dilemmas not just of slavery but of emancipation for the first time.
The title of the play tells you what choice Hero finally makes; it’s no spoiler to reveal that in Part 2 he and his master, now called the Colonel, are lost in the woods between the battling armies. They also have a wounded captive with them, in a wooden cage: a Union captain of the First Kansas Colored Infantry. In the tradition of lost-in-the-woods plays, this section is profoundly philosophical in nature, exploring questions of race and power and social identity. But Parks makes the argument thrilling through a masterful timing of incident and revelation. And through something more, too. Though the Colonel is good for laughs — he soliloquizes about the joys of owning slaves while Hero polishes his boots — Parks dares also to sentimentalize him:
COLONEL: What will you do once you’re free?
HERO: I couldn’t say.
COLONEL: I know what I would do. I would be sorry to see you go. I would be. And Missus. She would stand on the porch crying and I would put a brave face on it while you went off down the road, heading who knows where to do who knows what, she’d be crying and I’d be standing there wearing my brave face. Once you rounded the bend, out of sight, gone never to return, we’d have supper. Missus crying in her soup and me, making too much conversation. Then would come night fall and we’d be getting ready for bed, Missus would have the bed covers pulled up over her head and I would be sitting on the bed, unable to lie down. Cause I’d be feeling like my good life had left me. Just like I felt when my son died but worse, cause you wouldn’t be dead, Hero, you’d just be gone. And I’d weep.
Of course, his next line, after weeping, is, “I am grateful every day that God made me white.”
Parks is generous not only to the oppressor, but to the oppressed who fear freedom. In Part 2, Hero asks the captive Union captain, who has urged him to cut and run, “Where’s the beauty in not being worth nothing?” and “Who will I belong to?” These are slave questions but not only slave questions, and they inform the choices that face all of the characters in Part 3. Back at the plantation, with Hero’s fate unknown, Penny and others must also decide whether to cut and run. But by now the question of freedom has expanded to include ideas about love and self-worth and irreparable damages. Without ever leaving the confines of the particular situation, Parks manages to send tendrils of thought shooting out into the future: to Jim Crow, to the great migration, to redlining and slums and even stop-and-frisk. In that sense the play is epic, and certainly Parks intends it as such: Hero’s wall-eyed dog (a hilarious character in Part 3) is called Odd-See, and Hero himself trades that slave name for one of his own choosing — Ulysses, after Union general Grant. (See also: Penny.) But Father Comes Home From the Wars is also heartbreakingly individual, in just the way that history itself is.
As good as the play is, I believe that none of it would work if it were not for Jo Bonney’s beautifully cast and calibrated production. Her shaping of the scenes has a musical quality, and not just because of the folksy songs that open and close each part. (The songs are by Parks and are beautifully arranged and sung by Steven Bargonetti.) There’s also a classical, almost symphonic quality to the contrast of themes and the return of motifs and the patience with which the story is allowed to develop. This puts a lot of pressure on the actors, who must perform effectively in different styles at different times, and sometimes even at once, with a secret eye on what comes later. There’s no weak link, but Sterling K. Brown as Hero makes a powerful, complicated leading man throughout, and in Part 2 Ken Marks (as the Colonel) and especially Louis Cancelmi (as the captive) do extraordinary work bringing difficult human beings to full life. In Part 3, Jacob Ming-Trent is extraordinary as the dog.
There’s no guarantee that Parts 4 through 9 — which apparently bring the story up to the present — will be as good, or that anyone will be able to produce the whole thing when it’s done. But there’s a reason (besides nerve) that Parks was able to get theaters around the country to produce 365 short plays of hers every day for a year. Even in our supposedly ADD culture, people long for stories that engage the deepest possible issues in the most gripping possible ways. Father Comes Home From the Wars is one of those stories — or maybe more than one.
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3) is at the Public Theater through November 30.