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Father Comes Home From the Wars — A Story of Then, Now, and Everything in Between

Actor Sterling K. Brown and director Jo Bonney bring American history into the present in Suzan-Lori Parks' Civil War-era plays.

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

Based on its title, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) may inspire some initial trepidation. Beyond its numerical heft, the title invokes images of dusty museums filled with stoic daguerreotypes from centuries past. On the contrary, it's best not to judge this history book by its intimidating cover. Since the piece's first lab in 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and her director Jo Bonney have worked to remove the very sense of distance that decades and centuries tend to wedge between the present and the past.

Parts 1, 2, and 3 of Parks' nine-play epic, now in performances at the Public Theater, take us through the Civil War. Our protagonist, aptly named Hero, journeys from Southern enslavement through the battlefields and back home again where a new post-Emancipation era is on the horizon. Hero and his circumstances are clearly grounded in a very specific moment in time, as are each of the piece's nine total "parts" — a term deliberately chosen by Parks to describe each of her entirely self-contained vignettes — which trace a timeline of American history. Parks and Bonney, however, have made it a point to free each of these individual plays from their temporal constrictions. Runaway slaves in period shirts don fanny packs and sneakers; Parks' self-composed folk tunes, tinged with modern influences, are woven throughout the action; and Hero, along with his fellow slaves, regularly spout present-day colloquialisms.

Getting audiences to wrap their heads around a "Civil War play" with a foot in modern day is certainly a challenge, but a worthy one as Bonney has discovered throughout her nearly six-year journey with the piece — an exploration that will continue at the American Repertory Theater this winter when all nine of the plays will make a unique addition to the Cambridge theater's Civil War Project. "Suzan-Lori might be placing it there but it's not a story about slavery and the Civil War," Bonney says. "It's really about the hopes and dreams of people then and now. It's inseparable."

Sterling K. Brown as Hero in Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3.
(© Joan Marcus)

The task of inhabiting this universal story largely falls to actor Sterling K. Brown, who portrays the captive Hero as he stumbles his way through the Civil War, searching for an identity to cling to. "He wants to be able to walk through the world in such a way that he doesn't have to duck or dive or pretend to be something else," says Brown of his character. "To say 'I can be wherever I want to be as I am': That doesn't have anything to do with 1860 or 2014."

The legacy of what has transpired between these two temporal bookends, rather, is one of the play's main driving forces. "All of us carry history in us," Bonney says. "We carry Greek mythology, we carry the myths and legends that we've grown up with, and we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the people who have gone before us. What Suzan-Lori is talking about is the cycles of history and how we break the chains and go forward from that." As Bonney leads a primarily African-American cast, her actors themselves are vessels for these very myths, legends, and historical tales — an element that both Bonney and Brown agree brings an inimitable sense of passion to both the rehearsal room and the stage.

"For me personally," says Brown, "the disenfranchisement that slavery played upon a group of people, and how they've constantly been trying to piece themselves back together over time is a phenomenon that's unique to black people in this country who have the history of being here since slavery. You have to be passionate about how that story is told."

"It's important for the audience to not feel as if they're witnessing something that took place in the past," he continues. "We all played a part in this history, whether we're in the present or in the past. You have to own that…to pay homage to the people who came before you."

"What's the difference between a human being in the 1860s and a human being in 2014?" Bonney asks. "Everyone laughs, everyone sings, everyone falls in love, everyone hates. The story of those characters is the story of today — the story of today is the story of then."