Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London (****)
More than a decade ago, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog swaggered over from New York to the Royal Court.
The first African-American female Pulitzer Prize winner, Father Comes Home from the Wars (parts 1, 2 & 3), now follows, wholly different in style, classical where Topdog was expressionistic but even more elegiac in its statement of the place of African-Americans in American society. Given the spate of recent police murders by white policemen on black Americans, the play could hardly be more topical.
For Parks sets out, following the style of Homer’s Greek Odyssey to show the toxic roots of that relationship dating back to the American Civil War.
Freedom is her over-arching theme within a rich, multi-faceted examination from Slavery’s overt master-slave, to the freedom to make one’s own decisions and with it the dangers freedom brings in terms of lack of personal value and not least, the freedom to leave a husband.
This last is perhaps the most surprising in an evening that swings from old-fashioned homespun to sardonic and ultimately deeply affecting.
For the power of the former, an exchange between the Confederate slave-owning Colonel taunting Union prisoner, Smith, we have to thank a terrifying portrait of Trump like omnipotence from John Stahl, spitting venom with an almost divine right of supremacy and ownership: `I am grateful every day that God made me white…no matter how low I fall and no matter how thoroughly I fail, I will always be white.’
A speech guaranteed to shock in its determinism, it’s interwoven with great wit by Park sandwiched as it is between the contrasting style of the first and third parts with the appropriately named Hero (Steve Toussaint)’s decision to join his master in battle because of a promise to free him and his subsequent homecoming with its further surprises and twists concerning Hero, his wife and his dog!.
There are lovely performances from Hero’s Choric slave companions, Nadine Marshall as Hero’s loyal wife Penny, from Jimmy Akingbola as Hero’s companion/competitor in love and not least, guitarist/music director Steven Bargonetti whose twanging guitar and banjo serves as wonderful `mood’ music for director Jo Bonney’s simple shack but iconic rural settings.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
A new play by Suzan-Lori Parks
Homer: Jimmy Akingbola
Smith: Tom Bateman
Fourth/Odyssey Dog: Dex Lee
Leader/First Runaway: Sibusiso Mamba
Penny: Nadine Marshall
Third/Third Runaway: Sarah Niles
Second/ Second Runaway: Jason Pennycooke
Colonel: John Stahl
Hero: Steve Toussaint
The Oldest Old Man: Leo Wringer
Director: Jo Bonney
Set Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Sound Designer: David McSeveney
Songs & Additional Music: Suzan-Lori Parks
Music Director, Arranger & Performer: Steven Bargonetti
Voice & Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder
Fight Director: Pamela Donald
Assistant Director: Anthony Simpson-Pike
Casting Director: Amy Ball
World premiere of Father Comes Home from the War (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Oct 14, 2014 at the Public Theater, New York
First perf at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Sept 15, 2016
Father Comes Home From The Wars (parts 1, 2 & 3) runs at the Royal Court Theatre to Oct 22, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2016