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Tag Archives: Suzan-Lori Parks

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 The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

Oh, You Can’t Sit Down! – New “Porgy and Bess” at the Ahmanson

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley as Gershwin's famed couple [photo: Michael J. Lutch]

Alicia Hall Moran and Nathaniel Stampley as Gershwin’s famed couple [photo: Michael J. Lutch]

It depends on where you sit as to how you categorize George Gershwin’s opus, “Porgy and Bess.” He wanted it on Broadway. Now it is usually in opera houses. He saw it as an homage, based in part on a DuBose Heyward novel and in part on his own observations – from the outside – to African-American life on an island off the southern coast. Many see it, rather, as a series of stereotypes – of women, of African-American life, of poor communities – and therefore difficult to wrestle with. For some it needs reforming to be acceptable to a modern audience or performer. For others it is a great piece of American classical music, and fiddling with it would be like reworking Verdi or Bizet.

Director Diane Paulus took this bull by the horns, invited Pulitzer Prize-winner Suzan-Lori Parks to adapt the script and Diedre L. Murray to adapt the score, cut it from nearly 4 hours to about 2 1/2, and created what is billed as “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,” winner of the Tony Award for Best Revival. This despite the entire enterprise being loudly criticized by no less than Stephen Sondheim for fiddling with a classic. Now at the Ahmanson Theatre, you can decide for yourself. As for me, lover of Gershwin that I am, I find this new “Porgy” delightful in its sense of community, and still richly musical. The greatest songs are there, and the twists in tale and personhood make for freshness.

I would put it up next to the David Henry Hwang adaptation of “Flower Drum Song” (which was brilliant, regardless of New York critics’ consensus), as a way to breathe enriched life into a great work tabled for its lack of modern sensitivity. This is a “Porgy and Bess” people will come to see, and not leave feeling the way one feels watching Bill Robinson be ordered around by Shirley Temple.

Certainly, the artistry of direction and performance keep the tale humming along. The attention to the people of Catfish Row – their individual wants, and their sense of community – elevates its humanity in a way which only grows the experience. You do not just observe these people, you get to liking them, admiring their underlying grit and their ability to find strength in tradition, faith and each other.

Add to this the rich vocal talent of the cast. Nathaniel Stampley’s Porgy sings with heart, and gives Porgy’s disability greater definition. No longer rolling around in a cart, his twisted leg and handy cane give him the opportunity to look life in the eye more often than in past productions. Alicia Hall Moran gives Bess a wary, wounded quality which creates a particular empathy with the audience. This is not just the “bad girl,” and an article to be fought over by men, but someone struggling with addiction, desperate for belonging, who proves her mettle – up to a point anyway – to a grudgingly accepting fishing village.

Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life challenges the cast of "Gershwin's Porgy and Bess"

Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life challenges the cast of “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess”

Also worthy of special attention are Kingsley Leggs, who gives a jaunty jazz feel to Sportin’ Lifethe erstwhile Manhattan pusher so scornful of small town life, the operatic Denisha Ballew, whose “My Man’s Gone Now” cuts to the heart and all but stops the show, and wistful Sumayya Ali, who along with the handsome, tender David Hughey handles a reworking of the show’s most famous tune, “Summertime,” with warmth and a sense of forward movement.

Which is not to say that anyone else in the cast does not stand up to the general excellence. They do, and dance well too. Choreographer Ronald K. Brown has created movement and dance which both enhance the show’s cultural context and create considerable visual and emotional spark. The rough-hewn set by Riccardo Hernandez provides what is needed for the storytelling without extraneous clutter.

In short, this is “Porgy and Bess” honed down to its essential essence. Exciting and inviting, it brings Catfish Row back into the light. Yes, it is not exactly as George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heywood first imagined it, but that is one of the joys of working with something which has stood the test of time. After all, how many productions still use every word of a Shakespeare play – or its original Elizabethan setting? Sometimes, for the joy of the original to shine through, it must be reimagined to reach people where they are.

What: “Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” When: Through June 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 pm Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $120 Info: (213) 792-4400 or

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