“Who will I belong to?” is one of the central questions Suzan-Lori Parks asks in Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3). In A.C.T.’s current revival of her 2014 play, James Udom stars as Hero, a slave who weighs the consequences of fighting for the Confederate South in the American Civil War. His master The Colonel (Dan Hiatt) has extended a devil’s bargain to him. If Hero follows him into battle, he’ll be given his freedom. But The Colonel made that promise once before and reneged on it. Should Hero trust him this time? And, should he decide to go, does it make sense for him to be fighting for the institution of slavery?
Parks has designed Part 1, subtitled A Measure of a Man, as an interrogation of Hero’s soul. By introducing us to the other characters also enslaved on The Colonel’s land, we see him, at first, through their eyes. Leader (Chivas Michael) and Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka) know about The Colonel’s offer and debate the merits of going to war until they, along with Third (Britney Frazier) and Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez) end up making bets about what Hero will decide. They express the quandaries of his divided consciousness — should he stay or should he go?
The playwright’s insightful assessment of the past, and how it’s informed the present, allows the audience to see the world through the eyes of those whose bodies, minds and souls are enslaved. The characters wish for freedom but also have a hard time imagining the details of what freedom might look like. Hero doesn’t appear on stage until halfway through the first act. He’s a Godot-like figure who everyone is talking about and waiting for. When he actually shows up, the Greek chorus of supporting actors have defined him as the leader of this extended family and the apprehensive hero of the play.
Parks goes on to capitalize on his indecisiveness. It’s this flaw that humanizes him and also leads him to betray his companions, and more than once. It’s the first betrayal though that sends Hero headlong into Part 2, The Battle in the Wilderness, a decision that’s made by default rather than through his own agency. When the second act begins, we meet The Colonel for the first time. He’s nursing a bottle of whiskey, already drunk, and serenading a man in a cage with his banjo. Hero is again off stage. The captive man is a Union soldier named Smith (Tom Pecinka). He has a serious leg wound and initially refuses to accompany The Colonel in song — until The Colonel points a gun to his head.
On the page, Parks doesn’t write The Colonel as a caricature nor does she make him sympathetic. We can all agree that the world doesn’t need to see another sympathetic slave owner, a trope that Gone with the Wind exhausted in 1939. But the character only contains the worst aspects of a Red State Southerner — he’s a violent racist and a liar whose only motivation is to maintain his right to own human beings. Hiatt’s performance doesn’t convey much beyond that of a cartoon villain but he may have been directed to play the part without much nuance or an internal life. He’s evil because he was born that way and there’s no room for argument about it. But he does engage in one of the play’s most compelling exchanges with Smith.
The Colonel says, “I’m not asking you to imagine owning a whole field-full but just one have you ever had the desire to own. Own. Own one just one of them?” Smith replies, “No.” The Colonel asks again in disbelief, “Not a one?” Smith again replies, “No.” Parks here gives voice to something that’s rarely acknowledged. Men like this take pleasure in their imagined sense of superiority, and the inequality they’ve been empowered to enforce. The Colonel completes this thought by declaiming, “I am grateful every day that God made me white … For no matter how low I fall, and no matter how thoroughly I fail, I will always be white.”
The force of The Colonel’s beliefs, however immoral and wrong, can account for Hero’s initial reluctance to be free (that and a fellow slave’s sawed-off foot after a failed escape attempt). Hero is more familiar with being a slave than not being one. But his encounter with Smith turns out to be pivotal. It’s Hero who asks Smith, “Who will I belong to?” and Smith who answers, “You’ll belong to yourself.” That answer troubles Hero but it helps to wake him up in Part 3, The Union of My Confederate Parts. Parks emboldens him to make decisions — even if he hurts the people he left at home by making them. He is an imperfect hero but one who can eventually claim, “These are my hands now.”
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2, and 3), through May 20, at A.C.T., 405 Geary St, $135.0-$115; 415-749-2228 or act-sf.org