The way the American Civil War forced choices about identity fascinates me. Suzan-Lori Parks takes this on through her particular lens with her three-act “Father Comes Home From the Wars.”
The play follows the choices made by Hero, a slave who serves his ‘boss-master’ fighting in the war. The first part shows him wrestling against his conscience, amidst his slave comrades, lover/wife, and ‘father’. With a Hamlet-like indecision, it takes other’s actions to get him to move forward.
Parks is referencing the hero’s journey, too, particularly Homer’s “Odyssey.” Hero even takes the name Ulysses later in the play, the Roman name for Odysseus, as well as the Union general, and another slave is named Homer.
But it’s the Shakespearean ties that intrigue me. The second act features a Shakespearean soliloquy by the boss-master that is as touching as it is surprising, as well as unveiling the surprise identity of their Union soldier captive.
Hero continues a motif of trying on clothes to try on new identities. Still, he can’t imagine a future in which his value isn’t expressed monetarily. His choice at the end of the second part is disappointing, but completely in character.
By the third act, the tone changes dramatically, with a Greek chorus of runaway slaves, or maybe they’re more like the three witches of the Scottish play. And Hero’s dog makes an appearance as a truth-telling Fool. While the other characters change and let go, adjusting to shifting circumstances, Hero plays out the same drama of loyalty versus his true identity. He admits to trading his “soul” for values he seems to have no choice in enacting.
Parks has made a Shakespearean play about the greatest tragedy in the American experience, perhaps even greater than the annihilation of Indian cultures, although with much the same results. Some of the allusions are heavy-handed, such as the use of contemporary slang and dress, notably in the third part. I think her audience gets the relevance and crippling legacy of slavery today, without crippling not only one, but two of her characters. Still I can’t imagine the plot without the repercussions of the physical wounds of these characters.
In part two, the characters debate which wounds are worse. Hero says he would choose his legs, while the Yankee wounded in the leg says he now has to choose his arms. The specious choice of which body parts are best to preserve closes the play as Hero says his hands are now his own.
But are they? His self-deception makes him a tragic victim, much like his Shakespearean namesake. She as a passive victim is rescued. This Hero is neither heroic nor saved. It’s a sad business that Parks elevates and elucidates for the ages.