father

Todd d'Amour, left, and Sam Malone ruminate on the value of freedom in 'When Father Comes Home from the Wars.'

John B. Barrois

Many writers investigate the price of freedom as they examine the African-American experience. Suzan-Lori Parks, in her magnificent drama “Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1,2 & 3,” explores a different question: What is the value of freedom?

The play, presented by Southern Rep at Loyola University's Marquette Theater, continues through June 25.

On Martin Andrew’s grand set design, stunningly lit by Joan Long with beautifully crafted costumes by Laura Sirkin-Brown, director Valerie Curtis-Newton’s actors personify the agonizing moral dilemmas of Parks’ story.  

Much has been said about Parks' unique use of language, multiple narrative styles, Greek antecedents and classical references, which, it's been said, might alienate some theatergoers. But here nothing could be further from the truth. “Father” is a captivating, accessible drama that is as much about our present as it is about our past.

Part 1, “The Measure of a Man,” opens in 1862, on a small plantation in West Texas. The “boss master,” a Confederate colonel, has promised his personal slave, Hero (Sam Malone), freedom if he joins him in Civil War battle.

A “chorus of less desirable slaves” (John Ray Proctor, Martin Bradford, LaKesha Glover, Zeb Hollins III) gamble on whether Hero will accept. The Oldest Old Man (Harold X. Evans with wizened integrity), Hero’s surrogate father, presses him to go and seek a better life for himself, while Hero’s “almost wife” Penny (Idella Johnson in an emotionally prolific performance) yearns for him to stay with her.

And Hero's friend Homer (Robert Diago DoQui) tells Hero not to choose, “ 'cause both choices are nothing more than the same coin flipped over and over.”

In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” the Colonel (Greg Baber) has captured Smith (Todd d’Amour) a wounded soldier, and he believes to be a Union captain. A bond develops between Hero and the abolitionist Smith, who urges Hero to grab hold of his liberty — “You belong to yourself,” he says — but Hero hesitates. 

"Seems like the worth of a colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave," Hero muses. "Where’s the beauty in being worth nothing?”

Finally Hero returns to the plantation in Part III, “The Union on Confederate Parts.” Much has changed there, and Hero, a free man now calling himself Ulysses, also has changed. Perhaps unwittingly, he has taken on the characteristics of the man who once physically and psychologically controlled him — the Boss Master.

“Father,” rich with subverted expectations, is not an easy play to experience – not because of its style or the harshness of its subject matter, but because it tests your dignity as it measures your morality, makes you grapple with harrowing choices, and presents you with parables that are unfinished, waiting for you to complete.

Parks’ drama is a symphony of ideas; it is bound to provoke important discussion.

Curtis-Newton’s tight, meticulous direction motivates each actor to peak performance. The centerpiece performance is Malone’s. As he rivetingly reveals the full spectrum of human conditions, Malone brings a majestic volatility to Hero, who is not quite heroic.

But as brilliant as the acting is in this production, the opening-night standing ovation belonged to the playwright. Parks’ accomplishment is nothing short of a contemporary masterpiece.

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"Father Comes Home From the Wars"

WHEN: Through June 25

WHERE: Southern Rep – Marquette Theatre, Loyola University

TICKETS: $20-$40

INFO: southernrep.com or (504) 522-6545

Bruce Burgun is a retired theatre professor from Indiana University and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.