In the second of the three blazingly original playlets that make up Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3),” a slave serving as aide to his master in the Confederate army quizzes a captured Yankee soldier about a concept he can’t quite get his head around: liberation.
The slave, Hero, played by the commanding JaBen Early, wants to know from the soldier, Smith (an excellent Michael Kevin Darnall), to whom would he belong were the North to win the war and freedom arrive. Smith’s answer is magisterial, bracing and chilling, all at once.
“You’ll belong to yourself,” he says.
It’s in this stirring moment of a sprawling evening at Round House Theatre, staged with insight and humor by director Timothy Douglas, that the implications of “Father Comes Home from the Wars” are drawn into poignantly human focus. If it’s impossible for Hero to grasp the practical or existential meanings of emancipation, it’s almost as difficult for a modern audience to fathom a consciousness that doesn’t understand them. Or perhaps, the drama is compelling spectators to make an even deeper connection — to examine one’s own conception of freedom and how today one might still have trouble with the profoundly political and philosophical question of whether they truly belong to themselves.
Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Topdog/Underdog,” lets freedom ring ever more vibrantly in the background of the plays, set in Texas and other parts of the South in the middle years of the Civil War. As the expectation for emancipation grows — one of the slaves on the Texas plantation reports hearing of some kind of “proclamation” on the subject — the forms of the playlets evolve, too. Greek drama and mythology, naturalism, even magic realism are employed in this semi-marathon of a production, in which Parks’s characters luxuriate in long, sometimes elliptical conversations.
The changes in style and tone give the story — and there is a linear one, linking all three — added texture and context. (They are the initial triptych in a proposed nine-play cycle.) In the first, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero is presented with a challenge: remain on the plantation or follow his master into battle, with the promise of release from servitude thereafter. The second, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” takes place near the front lines, where Hero’s master, the Colonel (a pleasingly unlikable Tim Getman), holds the Northern soldier prisoner. The third, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” takes us back to the plantation and a more absurdist perspective on Hero’s expanding sense of his choices, in terms of his identity and future, that are distinct from the limited ones that slavery has imposed.
During the first and third playlets, Early receives stalwart support from an ensemble that includes, most notably, Valeka J. Holt as Penny, who, like Odysseus’s Penelope, perseveres valiantly while her man is away;
Kenyatta Rogers as Hero’s romantic rival, Homer, and Craig Wallace, playing both Hero’s adoptive father and later his best (four-legged) friend. The second play sits at the night’s midpoint and constitutes its thematic centerpiece as it explores most richly the twisted social framework of what has come to be known, especially aptly in this situation, as the peculiar institution.
We’re transported in “A Battle in the Wilderness” to a dusty Southern encampment, rendered by set designer Tony Cisek as a surrealistic landscape of gnarled tree roots and other odd bits of flora. Here, Getman’s Colonel — a self-deluding plantation owner who wears moral blindness as a medal — picks at a banjo, taunts the wounded Smith and in one amazingly outrageous speech, congratulates himself on his whiteness. The words wend their way into our own current events, in the terror expressed by some who see the Caucasian majority coming to an end in this country and attempt to console themselves with the grand fiction that white is always right.
Parks captures something here that is at once starkly realistic and absurd, a confluence intensified by a revelation from Smith that throws off both Hero and the audience. With his virile stoniness, Early introduces us to a character that at first seems very much a one-dimensional hero of myth. The portrayal, under Douglas’s guidance, grows more supple as the character gains knowledge. It’s a big, important role, and Early rises commendably to the task.
As a Greek chorus of plantation slaves, Jefferson A. Russell, Jon Hudson Odom, Stori Ayers and Ian Anthony Coleman are incisive commentators. Wallace has a fine old time, reentering the play late in the evening as a canine witness to history — and just in time, too, because it’s in the midst of the third play that “Father Comes Home from the Wars” flirts with overstatement. Still, too much has already occurred that ignites the mind to mute the impact of this daring, challenging epic.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3) By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Sets, Tony Cisek; costumes, Helen Huang; lighting, Andrew R. Cissna; sound, Eric Shimelonis; fight choreography, Casey Kaleba; dramaturgy, Otis Ramsey-Zoe. With Memphis Gold. About three hours. Tickets: $10-$61. Through Feb. 28 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Visit roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.