Thursday, May 3, 2018

ACT stages powerful drama, 'Father Comes Home From the Wars'

Hero (James Udom, gray jacket) tells his fellow slaves he's going to follow his master to war. (Joan Marcus photo)
Love or freedom?

These are the choices faced by a Civil War slave in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts I, II, III,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

But there’s far more to this powerful drama, which is loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

The slave, Hero (James Udom), has been promised his freedom by his master, the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), if he will join the Colonel in fighting for the Confederacy. Hero is torn because he wants to stay home with his beloved Penny (Eboni Flowers), and he doesn’t want to support the wrong side.

As the play opens, four slaves -- played by Gregory Wallace, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Britney Frazier (filling in for Safiya Fredericks) and Chivas Michael -- along with two others, Steven Anthony Jones as the Oldest Old Man and Julian Elijah Martinez as Homer, are betting what Hero will decide.

Apparently the prospect of freedom is stronger than the pull of love, so Hero dons a castoff gray Confederate jacket and follows the Colonel.

In the next scene, the Colonel has captured and caged a wounded Yankee soldier, Smith (Tom Pecinka). The drunken Colonel tries to get Smith to guess how much Hero is worth, and then launches into a racist tirade about how glad he is to be white. Hiatt is brilliant as this despicable character.

Finally, Penny, Homer and three runaway slaves (Agbabiaka, Frazier and Michael), along with Hero’s dog, Odyssey (Wallace), await Hero’s return.

This time it’s Penny’s turn to make a choice. Should she stay with Hero, who has married while away, or should she join the runaways and Homer, who loves her, to seek freedom in the North?

Playwright Parks, aided by Liz Diamond’s meticulous direction, relates this tale compellingly and poetically while showing how difficult slaves’ lives could be.

She also brings humor into the picture, mainly with the dog Odyssey, so whimsically played by Wallace. She turns the three runaway slaves into a Greek chorus that becomes a seamless part of the action.

The main characters all are memorable thanks to humanizing performances. Completing the cast is the singing, guitar-playing Martin Luther McCoy as the Musician, who bookends each scene.

Riccardo Hernández designed the stark set with dramatic lighting by Yi Zhao. The patched costumes are by Sarah Nietfeld with sound and music direction by Frederick Kennedy. Parks wrote the music. Choreography is by Randy Duncan.

This co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre is a brilliant, lyrical drama that’s a must-see.

Running about three hours with one intermission, “Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts I, II, III” will continue through May 20 at the Geary Theater. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit