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The Baggage of Oppression: “Father Comes Home…” at the Taper

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”  [Photo: Craig Schwartz].

L-R: Michael McKean, Sterling K. Brown and Josh Wingate in “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”
[Photo: Craig Schwartz].

A hallmark of fine modern playwrighting is the ability of a play to be enjoyed at more than one depth. Story and character can take an audience to one level, and a solid one at that. For those willing and/or able to look deeper, there exists another layer – symbolic, mythical, implied or even ancestral – which can make statements far larger than the comparatively surface scenario which appears most obvious. Such writing is elemental in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and one reason her works are held in such high esteem.

As case in point, take “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” currently at the Mark Taper Forum, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this past year (Parks won a Pulitzer for “Top Dog/Underdog” in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to do so). The play can be taken pretty much as chronicle, or it can become a fascinatingly layered look at the legacy of slavery’s innate messages to the African-American experience, and why dignity and selfhood were and are an uphill battle, defining and redefining loyalty, respect and self-image.

The play follows Hero, a slave on a small plantation in Texas who ends up assisting his master as he rides off to be a Colonel in the Confederate Army. Hero first must struggle with whether to resist going to support a conflict which keeps him in bondage, then with what it means to be in the middle of that carnage working for that master, and then with the changed world of the plantation – and the changes in himself – when the he returns long before the war is over. Yet, this is only the baseline for what an audience encounters in the play.

Director Jo Bonney gives hints of the greater universality of the piece from the start, as unnamed family slaves are costumed by ESosa not just the garb of the era, but with hints of the future (one wears a Washington Grays baseball jersey, for example). This kind of subtle nudge at the play’s more universal underpinnings continues throughout, in all aspects of the play and the production.

Sterling K. Brown proves powerful even as his character wrestles with himself, as he leads the cast as Hero: a man struggling with the nature of loyalty and his right to own himself. Whose promises are real? What makes him have value? Balanced against Hero are three central characters whose own understandings bounce off of his in often emotionally intense, even violent ways.

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero's return [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris and Larry Powell wait for Hero’s return
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris makes Hero’s “wife”, Penny, ferociously real. Distressed he chooses to leave her and follow their owner, she waits with a loving anticipation even as she must live a life without news and find comfort where she can. Larry Powell, as the longtime friend whose escape Hero foiled (and whose punishment Hero was forced by the master to carry out) plays counterpoint to Hero’s acquiescence to his position in the world. Homer wants more, even while hobbled, and is willing to risk to get it.

Also a powerful counterpoint to Hero’s view of life is, obviously, his master. Michael McKean makes the Colonel absolutely settled in his understanding of his superiority – a superiority which entitles him to a particular, often subtle sadism to which Hero has learned to acquiesce. When this man shouts to the skies how grateful he is to be white, because no matter what happens he will never be as low as Hero is, the message is potent and one Hero unconsciously absorbs.

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Patrena Murray and Sterling K. Brown as Odyssey Dog and Hero/Ulysses
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]


In the end, though, the voice of this tale and the icing on this fascinating piece is Patrena Murray’s portrayal of Hero’s dog, Odyssey. Accompanying his return, and speaking to all of the truths brought home with him, this character becomes the sage tying together loose ends, all the while defining the unwavering loyalty of a dog balanced against the loyalty Hero gave the Colonel and seems unable to give anyone else. Also integral to the production are Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Tonye Patano, Roger Robinson and Josh Wingate, all offering alternate voices to the one in Hero’s head.

Add to all of this the remarkable talents of Steven Borgonetti, who, accompanying himself on guitar, creates a musical landscape which sets the tone for some of the play’s most important moments.

“Father Comes Home…” is long, but so engrossing you really don’t notice. There is so much to absorb, and so many different subtle things being said about the long-term messages aimed at Black America and the coping mechanisms – some of which prove emasculating – that a people in and out of bondage have used to deal with those messages. And this production shines as brightly as the play, as Neil Patel’s simple, easily adjusted set design and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative sound design inevitably prove.

Go see this. Expect to have to work, as there is much to discover, absorb and analyze. Still, that can be a major joy of watching a fine play: it leaves you with a lot to work over long after the show itself is done. This is one of the reasons for the art form.

What: “Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” When: Through May 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave.at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“The Christians” at the Taper: Much to Ponder

Andrew Garman in “The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Garman in “The Christians” at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.

The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.

Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.

Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?

Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.

Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.

“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.

What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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