Suzan-Lori Parks’ ambitious play cycle about the historical journey of African-Americans from the years of slavery to the present day gets off to a strong start in “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts I, II & III).” Borrowing freely from sources ranging from Greek epic poetry to regional folk tales, the highly stylized dramatic narrative recounts the odyssey of a hero who goes off to fight in the Civil War as a slave and returns to the plantation a liberated man whose struggle to grasp the concept of freedom has only begun.
Helmer Jo Bonney brings her serene vision — along with an imaginative design team and a fantastic cast — to this structurally complex work. Deconstruction is the literary forte of this playwright, who took the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Topdog/Underdog,” and she merrily layers the multiple plots, themes, character models and narrative style of her many sources. Her language is at once classical and colloquial, and very musical. That offbeat technique is visually facilitated by Esosa, whose costumes are a mashup of different historical periods and fashion modes, with plantation slaves wearing reconstituted sneakers and cargo pants along with their work clothes. This show is just plain fun to watch.
Part I, “The Measure of a Man,” opens in 1862, on a small plantation in West Texas. The “boss master” is about to ride off to war as a colonel in the Confederate Army, and a Greek “chorus of less desirable slaves” is gathered in front of a slave cabin just before dawn, making a bet on whether or not the boss master’s personal slave, Hero (Sterling K. Brown, who earns the title), will go along.
Hero’s wife Penny (a vibrant Jenny Jules) is confident that he’ll stay home with her. Hector (a heartfelt perf from Jeremie Harris), a fellow slave who’s got “runaway blood,” advises him to take off. But the boss master has promised Hero his freedom in return for his service. That’s a true dilemma, but the chorus pursues it relentlessly, and at wearying length. If it weren’t for Steven Bargonetti, a personable banjo-playing balladeer who makes beautiful music of the scribe’s own folk songs, many an eye would be glazed over by the end of the hour.
Part II, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” finds the Colonel (Ken Marks, relishing the oratory) standing guard over a crude wooden cage holding a wounded Union soldier named Smith (a subtly expressive perf from Louis Cancelmi). More realistically written and staged than the stylized fable of the introductory play, their thoughtful but comical philosophical debate on slavery is riveting. And the wily Smith contributes to Hero’s education by enlightening him about slavery (“You belong to yourself”) and offering him a chance to join the Union.
Part III, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” takes Hero home again, preceded by the all-important messenger of epic sagas. In Parks’ clever scrambling of classic and colloquial forms, the herald is a big, fat, shaggy dog named Odyssey, played with great gusto by Jacob Ming-Trent. When the long-awaited Hero arrives, he has a new name, Ulysses, and, in the tradition of other archetypal heroes, a new wife. (Parks’ game playing only goes so far; in classic literature, the old wife often takes vengeance on her unfaithful husband by killing his new wife. Doesn’t happen here.)
But after all that thinking and all that talking about the meaning of freedom, Hero/Ulysses is still perplexed — and absolutely terrified — of what freedom means to him and, not incidentally, what it might cost him. (A free man, he notes, is worth nothing. As a slave, he’s worth $800.) And will he ever really be free of his slave legacy? That conflicted state of hope and fear is the most interesting and human thing about him.