There is real power in Father Comes Home, a new play from the terrific Suzan-Lori Parks (Pulitzer Prize winner for Topdog/Underdog, and the writing talent behind Spike Lee’s Girl 6). Here, Homer’s Odyssey is transported to the Civil War-era Deep South where we follow Hero (the excellent Steve Toussaint), a slave, as he wrestles with the lure and fear of freedom.
Hero is faced with a terrible proposition. His owner, the cruel and violent Colonel (played brilliantly by John Stahl), has promised Hero his freedom, on one condition: that he fights with him against the North in the Civil War. If he does this – and survives – he is a free man. But, of course, it is the North that is fighting for an end to slavery, whereas a win for the South will see only more black men and women treated as commodities to be bartered and sold.
Then there’s the war itself – Hero is in love and has friends, though he does not have freedom. Would it be better for him to fight and die, rather than live and suffer?
And, anyway, who would trust the promise of a slave owner?
These are just some of the many dilemmas that the characters wrestle with, and all of them grip you, challenge you. What does one man owe to his community, for example? If Hero accepts and survives, he will be free. But what about all those slaves in the Deep South he would leave behind? Can it be one man for himself, or must all those who are oppressed look out for each other?
The audience is constantly being provoked, and Hero’s course is not smooth or straightforward. Freedom is a scary proposition for many. And as Suzan-Lori Parks wryly points out, an end to slavery will not mean an end to racism. And without the cover of a white owner, what is there to protect the black community from violence?
There is so much in this production to admire. The writing, the acting… It’s all terrific. Many, I’m sure, will be anxious by the three hour running time but really, you don’t feel it. This is gripping, absorbing stuff and director, Jo Bonney, has got the ebb and flow in emotion and drama pretty much down to perfection as we watch Hero battle his internal and external demons.
And it speaks volumes that even after three hours, there were audible gasps from the audience from the sudden and unexpected twists and turns as the play reached its climax.
So, where’s the caveat?
Well, for me, it’s in the production design. It’s all very Civil War/Deep South by numbers. We have the ramshackle shed, rags for clothes and the Yankee uniforms. There’s not much that’s interpreted. And even the use of Blues-y guitar tunes as segues between scenes veers the production dangerously close to being quite twee at times, especially in the first Part where this is accentuated by an awful lot of laughs and giggles from amongst the slaves.
Maybe I’m a bit spoilt from the radical productions these days but this feels staid and conservative by comparison. I’m not looking for all shows to go the full Almeida, but I really felt this would have benefited from a more dynamic staging. The themes in Suzan-Lori Parks’s writing remain desperately relevant today. At times I felt this show left them in a time capsule. It needed to take more risks. But, this aside, this is powerful, powerful stuff.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to October 22, 2016
All production photos by Tristram Kenton.