Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Unheroic Return

Back from the Round House Theatre production of Suzan-Lori Parks's epic Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3) (and hoping that parts 4, 5, and 6 aren't all prequels). What a great production--certainly among the best offerings from RHT.

This Civil War recasting of the Ulysses tale humanizes the myth through characters that are flawed, loyal to (or betraying) all the wrong people, with the hero of the story, Hero (JaBen Early), carrying the weight of the most flaws and weaknesses.

The second part of the play deals most directly with the racial issues we still confront today, as Hero follows his master (Tim Getman) into battle on the promise that "boss-master" will free him for his service. It's pretty clear the despicable boss-master won't do it, so Hero's hope and loyalty--and ever-present Hamlet-like indecision about running away--are incomprehensible (at least until Part 3).

In this section Getman delivers a speech that made the largely white suburban audience (her own self included) very uncomfortable--it's the Southern Colonel slave-owner's confession to his Union captain prisoner (Michael Kevin Darnall) that he's thankful he is white. On the surface, it is clearly an assertion of superiority. But Parks's language and Getman's delivery of it is more nuanced: The reason he is thankful, boss-master says without irony, is that the black man's life is so miserable. Well, duh. Who wants to be miserable? He of course takes no responsibility for being the cause of that misery.

(From left) Michael Kevin Darnall, Tim Getman, JaBen Early, in Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2, & 3). Image: Round House Theatre via Facebook.

Also in Part 2, the Union captain prisoner tries to convince his Confederate, slave-owning captor that he cannot even imagine owning other humans. But [SPOILER ALERT] the fact that this Yankee is not actually white, but passing as white (and also passing as a captain rather than a private) leaves no opportunity for white redemption. That's a bit disappointing, I'll confess.

Part 3 makes some of Hero's (now Ulysses's) decisions clear, but not all of them. He's a flawed human. To lighten things up, and in true Shakespearean manner, Parks's provides us with a "funny bit with a dog," who turns out to be the story's moral touchstone. Maybe true unquestioning loyalty really is just a dog thing.

And I'll give a shout out to one of the best voices in Washington, Craig Wallace as "Oldest Old Man," Hero's father-figure in Part 1 (and taking a surprising second role in Part 3 I won't spoil).

Craig Wallace. Image: Round House Theatre via Facebook.

Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Written by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Maryland, through Feb. 21, 2016.

Hero: JaBen Early 
Penny: Valeka J. Holt
Oldest Old Man, Odysseus: Craig Wallace
Homer: Kenyatta Rogers 
Colonel in the Rebel Army: Tim Getman
Smith, a captive Union soldier: Michael Kevin Darnall
slaves: Jefferson A. Russell, Jon Hudson Odom, Stori Ayers, Ian Anthony Coleman
Musician: Memphis Gold

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