By turns philosophical and playful, lyrical and earthy, Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” swoops, leaps, dives and soars across three endlessly stimulating hours, reimagining a turbulent turning point in American history through a cockeyed contemporary lens.
An epic drama that follows the fortunes of a slave who troops off to fight in the Civil War — on the Confederate side — Ms. Parks’s play, which opened at the Public Theater on Tuesday night, seems to me the finest work yet from this gifted writer. (Ms. Parks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog.”) The production also represents a high-water mark in the career of the director Jo Bonney. And while I’m throwing around superlatives, I might as well add that “Father Comes Home From the Wars” might just be the best new play I’ve seen all year.
Ms. Parks’s mighty aims are signaled by the noble template she has chosen to tell her story: Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the epic poem about a Greek warrior’s long journey home from an epochal conflict. But her classical borrowings are loose, frisky and far from self-important. The central character in the plays is a slave named Hero (Sterling K. Brown), who leaves behind a devoted wife, Penny (Jenny Jules), and eventually claims the name Ulysses: the Roman name for Homer’s Odysseus, but also, of course, the name of the leader of the Union forces.
But Hero, or Ulysses, has a dog named Odyssey, or “Odd-See,” for his “eyes that go this way and that.” And this pooch talks up a mean streak. In one of the funniest passages, the energetic critter, played with hilarious verve by Jacob Ming-Trent, gives a long recapitulation of events that have taken place offstage, like a chorus in Greek tragedy dressed up in fun fur.
The wonder of Ms. Parks’s achievement is how smoothly she blends the high and the low, the serious and the humorous, the melodramatic and the grittily realistic; she, too, has eyes that go this way and that, and a voice that can transform blunt, vernacular language into fluid, flowing free verse. (Works like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play “An Octoroon” have also offered unsettlingly complex glimpses of this traumatic period.)
Under Ms. Bonney’s sure hand and a design team that impishly blends contemporary and period styles, “Father Comes Home From the Wars” is at once an epic dramatic poem, a moving personal drama about one man’s soul struggle, and a seriocomic meditation on liberty, loyalty and identity. (There are six more plays in the saga to come.)
The first part, called “A Measure of a Man,” begins as a “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” awaits the dawn outside a small cabin on a ranch in Texas. It is early spring 1862, and the four slaves gathering in the receding darkness have but one subject to discuss: whether Hero, a fellow slave, will agree to follow his master off to war.
Hero himself feels torn between self-interest — he has been promised his freedom in exchange for his service — and his intense loathing of the cause he’d be supporting. “I will be helping out on the wrong side,” he says grimly. “That sticks in my throat and makes it hard to breathe. The wrong of it.”
As matters moral are endlessly chewed over in Greek tragedy, so Hero’s decision is examined from all sides, with slightly enervating results. Ms. Parks seems to be doing a bit of throat-clearing as she prepares the field for her mighty work, although her incantatory language, which rolls along with an entrancing rhythmic tread, freely tossing contemporary slang into the mix, mostly grips our attention.
In the end, Hero decides to go to war, less because he believes his master will free him, but more under the burden of an awful guilt related to his involvement in the recapturing of a fellow slave, Homer (Jeremie Harris), who tried to escape. “I’ll go trot behind the master,” Hero says bitterly, “the non-Hero that I am.” Among its other achievements, the play excavates, albeit in a stylized and oblique way, the appalling psychological and physical toll of slavery.
The second part, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” finds Hero and his master, a colonel portrayed with unsavory unctuousness by Ken Marks, camped out in the forest, having lost track of their regiment in the thick of battle. Stuffed in a makeshift wooden cage is a Union soldier named Smith (the terrific Louis Cancelmi), whom the colonel treats with friendly derision — more or less as he treats Hero, too.
Although Ms. Parks’s writing moves to a more naturalistic plane here, the colonel and Smith philosophize about slaveholding. Smith is a white captain in the First Kansas Colored Infantry, who staunchly maintains that he’s never wanted to own a slave, despite the colonel’s goading insistence that he’d secretly like to.
But the colonel is by no means all buffoonish pride and arrogance. In an unexpectedly moving passage, he breaks down in anguished tears as he describes a lonely future in which he has to free Hero, confessing he’ll miss him as much as his dead son, before recollecting himself and crowing, “I am grateful every day that God made me white.”
Just as complicated is Hero’s perspective on his own identity. When the colonel leaves on a reconnaissance mission, Hero and Smith discuss a future in which the slaves have been freed, and Hero expresses ambivalence about the man he will become, and what his life will be worth.
“Seems like the worth of a colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave,” he says. In a bit of tortured, poignant logic that speaks to both his honor and his moral confusion, he admits why he’s never run off. “I’m worth something,” he says, “so me running off would be like stealing.”
“The Union of My Confederate Parts,” the final play in this trilogy, returns us to the cabin in Texas where Penny and Homer still live. It’s the fall of 1863, and now a chorus of runaway slaves awaits the dusk, when they can get on the move again. Ms. Jules and Mr. Harris affectingly portray the complicated relationship between these loyal friends, who have become a couple in Hero’s absence, although Penny insists that she loves only Hero.
But his return — after the shaggy tale told by his dog — brings as much sorrow as it does joy for Penny and, perhaps in the end, for Hero. When the sun finally sets on Ms. Parks’s extraordinary work, Mr. Brown’s moving Ulysses, the play’s restless heart, sits alone with his dog, contemplating an unknowable future.
He has learned that the slaves have been liberated, at least on paper, by the Emancipation Proclamation. But understanding how much his life and his soul have truly been changed by his experience will take some time. With his newly free hands, his first act will be to bury the man he still refers to, even in death, as his “boss-master.”
Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
By Suzan-Lori Parks; directed by Jo Bonney; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Esosa; lighting by Lap Chi Chu; sound and music supervision by Dan Moses Schreier; hair, wig and makeup design by Rob Greene and J. Jared Janas; songs and additional music by Ms. Parks; music director, Steven Bargonetti; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director; in association with American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus, artistic director; William Russo, managing director. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, at Astor Place, East Village, 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Through Nov. 16. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes.
Part 1: A Measure of a Man WITH: Russell G. Jones (Leader), Julian Rozzell Jr. (Second), Tonye Patano (Third), Jacob Ming-Trent (Fourth), Peter Jay Fernandez (the Oldest Old Man), Sterling K. Brown (Hero), Jenny Jules (Penny) and Jeremie Harris (Homer).
Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness WITH: Ken Marks (a Colonel in the Rebel Army), Louis Cancelmi (Smith) and Sterling K. Brown (Hero).
Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Parts WITH: Jeremie Harris (Homer), Jenny Jules (Penny), Jacob Ming-Trent (Odyssey Dog), Sterling K. Brown (Ulysses) and Russell G. Jones, Tonye Patano and Julian Rozzell Jr. (the Runaway Slaves).