by Barbara Smith
“The Hero’s Journey” is an intriguing story pattern, common in ancient myths as well as modern day exploits, in which a hero goes on an adventure, encounters a decisive crisis and then comes home changed or transformed. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“TopDog/Underdog”) has turned this form on its head in her groundbreaking play “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3,” and in this modern Civil War drama , produced by Intrepid Theatre Company and opening September 30 at the Horton Grand Theatre, she has created a provocative theatrical work that promises to engage, enlighten and evoke deep conversation.
Inspired in part by the stories and scope of classical tragedy, the play is set in 1862 in America against the backdrop of the Civil War. “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is about an enslaved man named Hero, who has been promised his freedom from his master if he joins him in fighting with the rebel Confederate army. At the center of the play is Hero’s dilemma: Will he go or will he stay? Should he stand strong in his principles, refusing his chance at freedom, knowing he would be fighting for a cause he abhors? Or should he go and fight on the wrong side and earn his freedom, perhaps even gain glory? A central question of the play becomes: If you are offered the thing you want most in this life but it is in exchange for the thing you want to do least, what will you choose?
Three of the principals in the production– assistant director Antonio TJ Johnson, who also plays the part of the Oldest Old Man, Wrekless Watson, who plays Hero, and Tamara McMillian, who plays Penny, Hero’s wife– took time from their rehearsal last week to share their thoughts and vision in this inspiring and challenging theatrical adventure. Expect the unexpected with the production, agrees each of the actors interviewed. “What you see is not necessarily what you get with this play,” says assistant director Johnson. “When I was first approached, I thought it might be another ‘black people on their journey’ type of play and was not necessarily interested in doing that.” But the veteran actor/director soon discovered that the play is like no others in that it’s not a rehash of old story lines, but rather, as playwright Parks has described, “a mashup of themes from the past”—racism, bigotry, loyalty and betrayal, slavery– woven intricately and intimately, through music, language, costumes, into the present. The play is a massively ambitious undertaking, with Parts 1, 2 and 3 actually the beginning of a trilogy that will likely include 9 parts or more. Stay tuned.
Clearly, the chemistry of the entire cast and crew is cohesive. Hugs abound and they don’t hesitate to call each other on differences of opinion, all in the process of creating new levels of understanding. In rehearsal time, they gel together like a family, exploring, sometimes painfully, how their lives mesh with their characters and the choices each has made.
“Trying to identify what my character went through then, and what I as an African American male go through today, it’s been an interesting adventure,” says Wrekless Watson, whose theatre credits include August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” “I hope that the play makes people think. It doesn’t need to change the way you think…but after the thought process, maybe each person will look in the mirror and ask, What will I do to make change to make things better. It starts with us.”
As Penny, Tamara McMillian (“The Ballad of Emmett Till”) is most fascinated by the multifaceted concept of freedom, a central theme of the play. “All of the characters are battling with their own notion of freedom,” she posits. The question I would like to pose to the audience is, What is freedom to you. For Penny, it is being able to love without restraints or consequences. Her ordeal in the play is with Hero, wanting him to stay home. But her love for him is compromised when he’s offered his independence.”
As the Old, Old Man, TJ Johnson fills the role with his own vast experience, spanning nearly 40 years as an actor/director/educator (“King Hedley,” “Seven Guitars,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Fantasticks” ), including numerous awards. “With my character, I like to call him the Legacy,” says Johnson, “charged with the responsibility of helping youth move with advice and experience but not get in the way– that is, give them what they need when they need it and then step out of the way and let them do their lives.” Of playwright Parks, he says, “She is meticulous in everything she puts on paper,” with specific instructions for movement, articulation, even punctuation. “The language is very Shakespearean, very August Wilson, very Sam Shepard. Tinges of all of these elements play in, and it has a little of “Our Town” too.”
Each of the Parts 1, 2, and 3 has its own rhythm, “like entering 3 different Twilight Zone episodes,” adds Johnson, so that the audience is always kept on their toes, processing, questioning, deliberating. And lest you think this is going to be a too-heavy evening, the humor and the musicality provide a counterpoint, with playwright Parks’ original music interwoven like connective thread, and, like the language of the play, while rooted in the 1800’s, still has a contemporary timbre. “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is not so much a play as an experience, says Johnson. “You experience the passion of each of the characters, who are confronted and struggle with impossible choices. The play holds a mirror up to you and you get a chance to ask, Who am I in this narrative. Theatre drenches you in the truth and you have to be involved with rigorous honesty. Actors have to play it honestly and if they do, then the audience receives it honestly and you have honest dialogue.”
And, adds, McMillian, “Having dialogue with someone opens the door to healing—even dialogue with yourself.”
Just as the play has become a part of each of the participating actors’ journey toward discovery, it may very well be that audiences, in seeing this production, will also take that hero’s journey, encountering adventure, crisis and return home changed, even transformed.
Directed by Christy Yael-Cox, “Father Comes Home from the Wars” runs through October 22 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Ave. For ticket information visit www.intrepidtheatre.org or call 888-71-TICKETS.