Sterling K. Brown turns in a sterling performance in the Center Theatre Group’s production of “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” playing at the Mark Taper Forum through May 15. But this is more than just a stage play about Civil War times. “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is an examination of the root of the racism that exists here and now.
As Hero, a valet to his master on a southern plantation, Brown conveys the confusion many a slave must have confronted when their owners tempted them with the promise of freedom. Should he go off to war and assist his master as he fights for the Confederacy, even though in his heart he knows the cause is unjust? Should he stay on the plantation with family and friends, even though boss man has promised his free papers if he were to serve in the war? Later, away from the fields of cotton and out in the field of war, when Hero has an open chance to run away and join the fast approaching Union Army, he still has doubts.
“When the patrollers find you on the road and ask ‘who do you belong to,’ what do you say? ‘I belong to myself?’ Now when they ask, I say I belong to massa, and they don’t bother me. How will they treat me when I say ‘I belong to myself?’”
If you’ve ever wondered how Blacks may have felt during slavery, the dialogue in this play will give you a taste. How did the southern slaveholder feel? We get a taste of that from the boss man, when he dialogues with his captive union soldier. How did the runaway slave feel? There’s a taste of that, too, in the third act. There’s even some comedic dialogue from the loyal hunting dog’s point of view.
But then, once in a while the actors look out into the audience and ask questions, pulling us back into 2016, and reminding us that we are in the here and now and that some questions and answers have the same relevance as they did in 1865.
At first, it seems strange that some of the characters are dressed in non-costume, sporting T-shirts and tennis shoes. In the first act, one of them is wearing a shirt from the Negro baseball league “Grays,” which seemed very out of place for West Texas in the 1860s. Some of the dialogue, hand gestures and mannerisms are also very familiar–including high fives and “deuces.” This was initially confusing. But then one realizes the validity of this new play, and how, even in the diversity of the Los Angeles audience, it was a bit uncomfortable to confront the message while sitting next to a seat mate of a different race.“It’s a continuum,” said Director Jo Bonney in the theatre’s “Performance” magazine. “And the baggage of that period is still being carried today. “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” was developed by the Public Theater and had its world premiere there on Oct. 27, 2014. Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks was named a finalist for the 2015-16 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize playwriting award for this show.
For ticket information, call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org.