This American Civil War drama is modeled after classic Greek Tragedy, on stage in Toronto
There is so much to be said about Father Comes Home From the War Parts I, II, and III that I feel this review may not be enough to do this production justice. Set against the American Civil War, the first three parts to this nine part epic deals with the pursuit of freedom and the complex and ever so relevant hot button topic of racism. Constructed as an American Odyssey with all the elements, including the lyrical style, of a Greek Tragedy, this moving, eye-opening and heartbreaking tale is something you won’t soon forget.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks has simply outdone herself with this tale, in particular with how nuanced and layered this story is. It begins with a black slave who simply goes by the name Hero (Dion Johnstone), who has been asked by his master (Oliver Dennis) to fight with him on the side of the Confederates during the war. In exchange, his master has offered his freedom. This poses a moral dilemma for Hero: if he survives the war, his freedom has been promised; on the other hand, he’d be fighting against the Yankees whose goal is to abolish slavery. He also has the woman he loves, Penny (Lisa Berry), pleading with him to stay, and who knows if his master can actually be trusted to keep his word? After a long and arduous debate, Hero sets off after his master into battle.
Father Comes Home From the Wars is told in multiple parts. The story involving Hero takes up the first three parts, with more to follow in future stories about life in America leading up to current day. The first part starts with Hero on the plantation debating his future and his fate with the first choice he’s ever been given as a slave. The second part sees Hero and his master during battle, taking refuge under shade. With them is an unexpected prisoner — a wounded Yankee captain named Smith (Gregory Prest) — with more to his story than what meets the eye. The third part brings Hero home, and the reception is not as he expected. Interludes between parts is Divine Brown’s soulful and rich musical numbers that make for perfect accents.
There are so many remarkable elements to Father Comes Home From the Wars that I don’t know where to begin. Every member of the cast give amazing performances, particularly Johnstone and Berry as their internalized conflict feels so incredibly real. I was also impressed by Dennis’ role as the rebel army colonel, Hero’s master. You want to hate him and you do, but you can’t help but see the rationality in his actions. In a day and age when the term ‘privilege’ and the idea of acknowledging personal privilege is thrown around so freely, watching Dennis deliver a monologue about how proud and thankful he is to have been born white puts everything in perspective.
The set by Lorenzo Savoini is also impeccable. On that stage inside the theatre, the set transported the cast to an outdoor dirt path complete with tree stump and dirt that moved. I loved the combination of lighting by Kevin Lamotte that showed sunrise and sunset in the distance paired with sound by Thomas Ryder Payne. His use of distance gunfire and ever so faint sounds of explosions that gradually grew louder was an amazing effect.
At first, I was a little thrown off in the third part when the dialogue became modernized, the mood lightened and the audience laughed. It’s a great way to summarize the tumultuous feelings this production leaves you with. In one moment you feel emotionally gutted, in the next you’re chuckling away. I felt particularly thrown off when actor Peter Fernandes went from playing part of the chorus of slaves in the first act to Odyssey the dog who delivers heavy news in a long and rambling speech. When the rest of the show felt rooted in reality, the talking dog threw me for a loop. It was at that point I remembered that this is still modeled on a Greek Tragedy where these whimsical things can and do happen.
There are only a few weeks left for Father Comes Home From the Wars, as they wrap on September 1st. It was great to see that the performance I attended, rather late in their run, was a packed house and tickets for future shows are selling fast. It’s clear that audiences have figured out what I just learned: that this show is something that needs to be seen, especially now when race issues (particularly in the States) are at an appalling high.
- Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts I, II, III) is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until September 1, 2016.
- Performances run Mondays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 1:30 pm. Tickets are selling fast, see website for details.
- Tickets range from $32 to $89 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at (416) 866 8666.
- Audience advisory: Violent depictions.
Photo of Lisa Berry, Dion Johnstone, Walter Borden, Akosua Amo-Adem, Marcel Stewart, Daren A. Herbert, Peter Fernandes, and Roy Lewis by Cylla von Tiedemann