Review: ‘Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 & 3)’ at Round House Theatre

Round House Theatre has crafted a formidable artistic statement for Suzan-Lori Parks’ inventive, no make that commanding, Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 & 3). It is a quietly scorching production that will leave evident marks; a provocative fusion of uncomfortable factual American racial history and vivid dramatic fictionalized flair set in the early Civil War era.

And I will not mince words, Father Comes Home from the War readily connects to contemporary times. The play speaks to freedom from bondage and the personal costs involved, well beyond merely the monetary. Along the way the audience is also treated to the potential fluidness of identity; of “passing” as the term might be used. The play’s clear mission was put well by Round House Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette in his program notes: “The historical journey of African-Americans from slavery to the present.”

Craig Wallace. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Craig Wallace. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

Expertly directed by New York based theater director Timothy Douglass, Parks’ Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 & 3) is making its regional premiere at Round House. Douglass both incites the audience as well as brings us into the play’s difficult proceedings. Douglass and his top-notch creative team have presented the malleability and fluidity of life in Parks’ world.

The three Parts of Father Comes Home from the War refer to the structure of Parks’ creatively composed script. Events are set during 1862-1863 on a small Southern plantation. Each of the three Parts has its own distinct cadence and rhythm and visual appearance. The Parts include the following.

In Part 1: A Measure of a Man the audience is introduced to the central force of the play and around whom others gather, a slave named Hero (Jaben Early as an actively striking presence no matter what the situation). As his master, an astonishing Tim Getman is a very likeable character with a mask of politeness who never lets his slaves, the audience and most certainly himself forget, that he is White and that enhances his statue no matter what. When his master, a Confederate Colonel, goes off to war, Hero must choose whether or not to join him. If he joins his master, Hero will become a slave who wears a tattered Confederate uniform. Judicious arguments are for what Hero should do, both for and against, lead by The Oldest Old Man (God-like voiced Craig Wallace as a caring father-figure). A Greek Chorus of individuals join the discussion. Playwright Parks identifies them as a “Chorus of less than Desirable Slaves.”

Part 2: A Battle in the Wilderness is a test of Hero’s loyalty to the Colonel. The test is certainly violent in its own way, though not by guns and bloodshed, but rather through calibrated very personalized debate for and against the concept of slavery between a captured wounded Yankee soldier (a quietly persuasive Michael Kevin Darnall who has no end of surprises for Hero and the audience) and with the Colonel. The Colonel holds that being White trumps all other aspects of life and is “on the summit” of existence.

Part 2 also includes an arresting examination about the value and costs of slavery and freedom between Hero and the Yankee soldier. An astonishing turn-of-events that turns on how well a military jacket fits, that s best described as jaw-dropping providing a major twist to the proceedings. In a world where being white trumps all other aspects of life and is “on the summit” of existence.

Then there is Part 3: The Union of My Confederate Part. It is a year a two after Part 1. Hero’s wife Penny (a deeply mournful Valeka J. Holt, who wears her psychic pain in the slouch of her figure and eyes large as sad moons) and another slave named Homer (Kenyatta Rogers, who wears a physically injury in the pulse of his sorrowful personage while seeking out real intimacy) on the plantation wondering if Hero will return. In the company of a trio of runaway slave, Penny and Homer uneasily wait sharing a deep secret. With Hero’s return and that of his Dog Oddsee (Craig Wallace again with brilliant insouciance), fireworks are set off with no cease fire in sight. At least not in Part 3.

We do know that playwright Parks is expected to pen an additional six parts for Father Comes Home from the War turning it into a nine part epic not unlike The Odyssey and The Iliad. For those less with Suzan-Lori Parks, she is a MacArthur “genius” fellow and the first African-American to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Topdog/Underdog in 2002. In 2007 her 365 Days/365 Plays was produced throughout the US including here in the DC area. Her reimagined Porgy and Bess played in DC in December 2013. The late and greatly missed Sydney-Chanele Dawkins interviewed Parks for DC Theater Arts, not once but twice.

The creative team for Father Comes Home from the War include Scenic Designer Tony Cisek. As the curtain rises, there is a drab slave cabin at audience left. At audience right is a ramp that rises to the wings and then connects to a long inclined elevated ramp like a road running the full length of the stage. This ridge-road has an architectural facing board with what looks like the arresting images of the late visual artist Keith Harding. The images are of stretching expressive figures with arms raised with all the strength they have holding up the weighty road.

Michael Kevin Darnall, Tim Getman and JaBen Early. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.
Michael Kevin Darnall, Tim Getman and JaBen Early. Photo by Cheyenne Michaels.

Helen Huang’s costume design used bits and pieces of cloth to make various whole outfits for each character. Clothing becomes a uniform that can be taken off or put on differently to make a “new” person. The feel of Huang’s costumes have characters’ strut or be low down. Lighting design by Andrew R. Cissna give each Part a sense of time through his color choices that differentiate the soft light early morning, the heat of high noon, and approach of evening.

The production also features Memphis Gold, a DC area blues musician who sets up and closes out the Parts with his juke-joint electric blues guitar. His music and singing give hints of expectations and wrap-up statements.

Let me quote from Round House Producing Artistic Director Rillette once again to close out my review of Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 & 3). This unique and very contemporary production is “masterful.” It is right for our times and will withstand the test of time. I look forward to the next Parts that Parks has in store for us.

Running Time: 3 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions.

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Father Comes Home from the War plays through October 4, 2015 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1553.gif

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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