Sterling K. Brown and Ken Marks in Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, directed by Jo Bonney, at the Public Theater.
Sterling K. Brown, Ken Marks, and Louis Cancelmi in Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), directed by Jo Bonney, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

The American Civil War can feel like a distant memory. There are no living veterans and the country abounds with new American families who have no ancestral ties to that conflict. Yet the war (the bloodiest in our history) still marks our national character; its consequences survive into our 21st-century lives. That is amply apparent in Suzan-Lori Parks' ambitious and beguiling Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2 & 3, now making its New York debut at the Public Theater.

That rather clunky title derives from the fact that this presentation is only the first three parts in a nine-play cycle, stretching from the outbreak of fighting to the present day. Luckily, you don't have to wait until Part 9 to understand what this story of slaves and soldiers has to do with you. Parks creates undeniably human characters and places them in universally compelling dramatic situations.

The first part takes place on a Southern plantation where a group of slaves discuss the possibility that Hero (Sterling K. Brown), one of their rank, might accompany the master off to war. Master has promised Hero his freedom at the war's end, but he has been known to break his promises before. The stone foot of slave Homer (Jeremie Harris) is proof of that. Unwilling to face the repercussions, Hero naturally agrees to go, much to this displeasure of his love, Penny (Jenny Jules).

The second part sees Hero and his master, a Confederate colonel (Ken Marks), separated from their army. The colonel has taken a Yankee prisoner (Louis Cancelmi), believing him to be an officer and scion of a wealthy Northeastern family. Hero discovers him to be something very different from that.

In the third part Hero returns to the plantation. While little about that world has changed, he has, reaping consequences for the small band of slaves on the advent of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Parks chooses her words with poetic flair. It's not an opaque look-how-clever-I-am style of poetry, but rather something musical and deeply accessible, gently smacking us upside the head with the legacy of slavery.

Weighing the prospect of his freedom, Hero speculates,

Today I can say "I belong to the Colonel." "I belong to the Colonel," I says now. That's how come they don't beat me. But when Freedom comes and they stop me and ask and I say "I'm my own. I'm on my own and I own my ownself," you think they'll leave me be?

In this moment, echoes of Selma and Ferguson reverberate through the theater. We're left with the chilling notion that the property of wealthy white Americans still holds more value in the eyes of the law than the free bodies of black Americans.

"I am grateful every day that God made me white," the colonel proclaims, as a ridiculous plume juts out of his officer's hat (ESosa's costumes are simultaneously iconic and DIY). Playing the only slave owner in the show, Marks is both laughable and terrifying. He bandies about the stage like a hyperactive 10-year-old in desperate need of amusement. Yet the pistol on his hip reminds us of the power of life and death this delusional and capricious person holds over those around him.

Throughout the three parts, Brown is our constant companion. He convincingly embodies a character as admirable and loathsome as any real human being, a major accomplishment for both actor and playwright. Harris furthers our ambivalence as beta-male Homer while Jules breaks our hearts as Penny. The whole ensemble brings a pulsating life to Parks' language.

Steven Bargonetti underscores the evening with arrangements of Parks' original music, faithfully strummed out on his banjo. He's an American troubadour, singing the great legends of a country that is still so young. "You haven't heard the old stories," a runaway slave says to the audience, "but I have." And we want to hear more.

This is rather shocking for a three-hour event, but a combination of beautiful language, gripping drama, and great performances keeps us riveted. This piece feels like an overture to something even grander. I'm anxious to see what happens in parts 4, 5 & 6.