If Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks weren't already established in our 21st-century pantheon of foremost American playwrights, Father Comes Home From the Wars would place her there. The first three parts of a projected nine-part cycle, Father Comes Home at the Mark Taper Forum is a drama of epic proportion embracing multiple themes: power, race, identity, the nature of freedom and personal responsibility, and the value of a single human life.
The play is set in the South during the Civil War, and revolves around a slave named Hero (Sterling K. Brown) who, in the first of three semi-independent acts, faces a momentous choice: whether to follow his master, the Colonel (Michael McKean), into battle on the side of the Confederacy in exchange for a promise of freedom or remain safely at home, basking in the adoration of his lover, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), his wise, old surrogate Dad (Roger Robinson) and his fellow slaves, who admire him.
Act two — alternately the most comic, obsidian and dramatically scathing of the three — takes us to the backwoods where Hero, the Colonel and a Yankee captain (Josh Wingate) whom the Colonel has taken prisoner are stranded. Here is the kernel of the questions Parks raises about the worth of a man’s life. In a performance that argues for complex villainy as the heart and soul of drama, McKean bares the soul of the besotted Colonel, an unrepentant racist who pleasures in his power and whiteness but grows maudlin at the thought of bidding goodbye to his (ostensibly) faithful slave.
In act three, Hero returns home, but his celebratory reunion with Penny, ever faithful to him in her heart, dissolves when he unheroically fishes from his pocket a cameo portrait of his new wife and bids Penny make their shack cozy for the three of them. Forfeiting any vestige of nobility, he proceeds to assault Homer (Larry Powell), a fellow slave whose foot he once severed on order of the Colonel. (Here too the promise, broken, was his own freedom.) The reason for the latest attack: jealousy over Homer’s love for Penny.
Both Hero and the Colonel are incredibly complex, intriguing characters, each splendidly realized under Jo Bonney’s astute direction. Luqmaan-Harris as the lovely, passionate Penny makes a luminous heroine. Powell is strong as the ethical Homer, while Patrena Murray nabs the spotlight as Odysseus the talking dog, who perceptively remarks that for dogs, faithful is a “given,” while for humans, it’s an “extra.”
The storytelling is topnotch, all the more compelling for its microcosmic portrayal of the institution of slavery, our nation’s original sin. Seeded throughout are intimations of Greek tragedy: Penny might be short for Penelope, while Hero’s chosen name for himself is Ulysses.
Neil Patel’s relatively spare scenic design is memorable for its striking upstage ramp, from which characters enter at grand dramatic moments. Musical direction and arrangements are by Steven Bargonetti. The lyrics of these sometime haunting songs (“Dark is the night/Long is the day/Got time for work/No time to pray”) are by Parks as well.
GO! Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through May 15. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org.