FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS
Here’s the boilerplate synopsis for Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 and 3: “[It’s a] drama about the mess of war, the cost of freedom, and the heartbreak of love, with all three parts seen in one night. Part 1 introduces us to Hero, a slave who must choose whether or not to join his master on the Confederate battlefield. In Part 2, a band of rebel soldiers test Hero's loyalty as the cannons approach. Part 3 finds Hero's loved ones anxiously awaiting his return.” That’s as good a distillation as any of Suzan-Lori Parks’ ambitious new play. To particularize further:
Part 1 is something of a Shavian dialectic (with southern American dialect) among Hero and his fellow slaves on the plantation.
Part 2 is a battlefield drama and a bit of a “courtroom drama” (albeit a mock courtroom), as a very real verdict determines the outcome. It sees Hero encamped with Master, aka the Colonel (Ken Marks) who has Smith (Louis Cancelmi), a Union prisoner of war in a cage. The Colonel means to kill Smith, but perhaps not right away. The Colonel moves off to do some reconnaissance, leaving Smith alone to stand guard with Hero—who until that moment has seen no advantage to disobeying orders. But Smith harbors a secret; and once revealed, it has the potential to change everything. The question is: will it?
Part 3 brings us back home to the plantation. Now we’re into the land of domestic drama; because the Hero that left his ladylove, Penny (Jenny Jules), may not be the hero who returns; and his ladylove has a persistent suitor, Homer (Jeremie Harris) who has graced her bed if not her heart. And wait! The dog is back. Throughout the play there has been reference to Hero’s loyal dog, but in Part Three he appears anthropomorphized, onstage, guy in a shaggy suit (Jacob Ming-Trent)—and he seems to be understood—to foretell the arrival of Hero and how the dog found him. So add magic realism to domestic drama.
There’s a certain boldness to tacitly presenting the play as an anthology of styles, but it results in an unevenness of tone and interest, and indeed an inconsistency of main character, to wit:
The dialectic of Part 1 wears out its welcome quickly because there’s not much story, nor any doubt about the outcome (else what sense would there be in the play’s title?). Nor is Hero…that much of a hero; all he can do is vacillate until he makes his decision.
Part 2 is a historical drama in microcosm that stands on its own; it’s the most effective because there are life-and-death stakes involved and Hero’s judgment is not implicitly a foregone conclusion. The suspense is genuine. And the exploration of a generally unknown facet of American military history adds even more sense of discovery.
Part 3 doesn’t seem altogether cohesive even on its own terms. It’s more Penny’s play than Hero’s, the key decision is hers; his deciding transition has happened offstage. And then there’s the doggus ex-machina. Not only has magic realism not been a factor in the play previously, but the dog enters the scene suddenly, after the narrative has been well on its way for some time. It’s amusing, but because it’s unearned, it comes off as more of a stunt.
I totally get—or rather, I think I get—Ms. Parks’ strategy: just as each part of the story explores a different facet of the slave experience as relates to war, choice, allegiance and freedom, she means to apply a different style to each part, within which to explore.
But a great deal of the strategy's limited effect happens because she doesn’t let us know that’s in store up front. And she might. There’s an enormous difference between dropping spoilers and setting up permissions. It’s a thing writers of musical theatre learn to do; the opening number is the pact you make with the audience that defines, implicitly or explicitly, the ground rules for the evening. Straight plays are, of course, a different matter and are often granted much more leeway by the viewer, as they’re not usually as distilled and heightened. I once heard John Guare tell a class, “The audience gives a playwright fifteen to twenty minutes to fuck around. After that, if he doesn’t have them, he’s lost them forever.” A musical doesn’t have anywhere near that much time; but certain plays don’t either, not if they’re going to experiment prodigiously in form. More than anything, Father Comes Home from the War could use that kind of prologue. Not only for clarity of perspective, but because once the audience has been oriented, you find yourself having to explain less. Father… could thus be cut, tightened, streamlined, much improved.
That said, the play has found enormous favor with many; and though I can’t count myself among the “accoladers,” I certainly see its value. But I also see that there’s work yet to be done, before it can permanently enter the repertoire of American plays as the mainstay it might prove itself to be.
hoping Ms. Parks and her director Jo Bonney—or another director, perhaps, in an iteration
to come—continue to do it…
One might, for different reasons, say the same of writer-director Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy, that finished a run (that I attended very near the end) not too long ago at Playwrights Horizons. And here’s the boilerplate for that: “Sutter is on an outrageous odyssey through his childhood home, his church, dive bars, motel rooms and even nursing homes. A kaleidoscope of sketches that interconnect to portray growing up gay and black, Robert O’Hara’s subversive, uproarious satire crashes headlong into the murky terrain of pain and pleasure and Booty Candy.”
But the work here needs to be done from the opposite end. O’Hara sets up his permissions quite brilliantly and funnily with an opening sketch about a curious young boy (played of course by an adult actor) and a domineering, culturally ignorant mother who tries to manage his curiosity the only way she knows how: bossiness and censure. Great. Permissions set.
But the permission set has been for situation comedy that has a certain amount of—I hate to call it grounding, but let’s say exaggerated verisimilitude. And next we’re into the Church sketch, in which the Reverend Benson castigates those who spread rumors, innuendo and uninformed judgment (he calls them, “the ‘They Heard’ folks). The sermon gets increasingly outrageous as it becomes apparent that Benson is nobody’s conservative, and is evoking fire-and-brimstone moral outrage by way of making the case for tolerance of all sexual persuasions. Again—great. And then he crosses the believable line, and reveals himself to be a cross-dresser. And the “funny” stops. It stops because O’Hara has moved from sitcom to absurdcom; and also because he violates the character of the reverend; for the longest time we think he’s a badass force for good…then he dons the wig, the dress and the heels and what’s really revealed is that he’s seeking tolerance for himself. Once the sermon becomes, essentially selfish it loses its thematic power and the reverend just one more wacky character. And then we don’t know what the ground rules are anymore. And it compromises those sketches where he again hits the mark. And also compromises the interconnectivity of the sketches, because they don’t all seem from the same storytelling universe.
Bootycandy has had several lives previous to its production at Playwrights Horizons, and I hope it has many more; but I hope also that O’Hara finds the time to keep refining it. “Pretty funny” is not a bad place to be. “Mostly funny” would be better. But “We killed ‘em” is best of all. And that doesn’t happen without rigorous, merciless focus and killing everything that doesn’t hew to the thematic and stylistic line. Because “funny” is serious business…
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