Homer's "The Odyssey" looms large in Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," her entrancingly intimate, anachronistically frolicsome Civil War drama that opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.
There's a character named Homer, a love interest named Penny (presumably short for Penelope) and even a dog named Odyssey. What's more, there's a hero named Hero, who goes off to war and returns (bearing the name Ulysses) to find things have changed quite a bit while he's been away.
No need to brush up on your Homer, however, to appreciate the panoramic playwriting here. Parks cycles through genres with postmodern impunity, evoking classics not to make academic points but to set the stage for an epic journey — the journey of a black slave seeking his liberty as the Civil War ignites and history slowly pivots.
This is the first installment of a vast work that Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Topdog/Underdog," originally intended as a nine-part trilogy but now believes may stretch even longer. Storytelling on this scale can be daunting, but "Father Comes Homes From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" is divided into three episodes, each offering a close-up inspection of characters wrestling with harrowing choices.
Directed with majestic fluidity by Jo Bonney, the production stars a deeply affecting Sterling K. Brown (hot off his performance as Christopher Darden in FX's "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson"). Brown plays Hero, the character confronting a wrenching decision in Part 1. His master has promised him his liberty if he accompanies him to battle. But how can he trust the Colonel (Michael McKean), who has reneged on his promises in the past?
Hero, who has become the subject of much speculation on this ragtag Texas plantation (his fellow slaves are taking bets on whether he'll join the fight), feels sickened by the thought of joining the Confederacy. He told Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) that he won't leave her. But the Oldest Old Man (Roger Robinson), his surrogate father, wishes him to put on the scraps of uniform the Colonel has given him and seek out a better fortune for himself than he'll find picking cotton.
The plot of Part I is spare and singularly focused, but the rhythm of the telling is lyrical, meditative and cyclical. Parks creates a song out of the situation, circling back to themes and dilating on the hopes and fears of a fateful decision that's being made in the context not of freedom but of violent oppression.
The other slaves form a chorus around the central characters, commenting on the action like their ancient Greek forbears. The Leader (Russell G. Jones) sums up the first act in a characteristically perky Parks bull's-eye: "There is a kind of sport to be had/ In the consideration of someone else's fate."
Steven Bargonetti, the Musician, plucks out on guitar the bluesy songs Parks intermittently stitched into her drama. He also offers occasional accompaniment, allowing the playwright's springy dialogue to play like recitative.
The next two parts of the drama nudge us ahead in time. The chronology is relatively unhurried (three seasons pass in a play that begins before the break of dawn and ends at sunset) as the plot keep thrusting choices upon Hero that have no easy answers — choices that divide him from himself.
Part 2, set in a wooded patch somewhere on a Southern battlefield, introduces us directly to the Colonel, a preening sadist who has captured a man he believes to be a white Union captain. Smith (Josh Wingate), likely to lose his leg that's been injured in war, is imprisoned in a makeshift cage, making him a literally captive audience for the Colonel's self-dramatizing racist antics.
A bond develops between Hero and Smith, two men whose freedom the Colonel gleefully controls. Hero at first is mistrustful of this prisoner who keeps extending overtures of friendship, but he can't help feeling solidarity with a man who is even more constrained than himself.
In a scene full of subversive plot twists, Brown heartbreakingly captures the awakening of Hero's empathy for Smith — a compassion that is at once self-compassion. McKean, meanwhile, makes the most of the Colonel's flamboyant perversity, strutting like a vicious peacock while wearing a feather in his hat and thanking the good Lord he was born Southern and white.
Part 3 returns us to the plantation, where Penny has let Homer (Larry Powell), a runaway slave whose foot Hero was forced to cut off, into her bed though not her heart. She is waiting for Hero, her true love, to come back from war. Her dreams tell her he's alive, but reports from the Colonel's wife are ripening her for tragedy.
This section is enlivened by the return of Hero's dog, Odyssey (played with roving canine high-spiritedness by Patrena Murray in a kind of furry vest). This loyal and lovable pooch has a full report on Hero's whereabouts but is easily distracted by the smells and sights of characters who are fiercely debating whether to make a break for it or wait around for a possible good ending to the Civil War.
A question Hero poses in Part 2 gets to the crux of Parks' drama: "How much you think we're gonna be worth when Freedom comes?" He's dubious when he hears that he will belong to himself when slavery is abolished: "Seems like the worth of a Colored man, once he's made Free, is less than his worth when he's a slave."
In a play that is as emotionally attuned to its characters as it is capacious, Parks presents freedom as both an existential puzzle and a historical wound. And both of these dimensions are fully realized in Brown's sonorous performance.
Brown was part of the play's 2014 world premiere at the Public Theater in New York. The rest of the Taper cast is collectively strong, though Powell's Homer and Wingate's Smith aren't as sharply characterized as they could be. Luqmaan-Harris is memorable in the moving role of Penny, though she underplays her climactic moment in Part 3.
The writing can admittedly feel prolonged in places. A ruthless edit will have to be imposed if and when Parks completes this mammoth project and realizes her dream of the plays being performed consecutively.
But Bonney's smooth staging facilitates a hypnotic storytelling flow. Unfolding on a minimal set by Neil Patel that is stunningly lighted by Lap Chi Chu and made even more picturesque by ESosa's costumes, the production is as lovely to behold as it is to listen to.
Parks, aided by music director Bargonetti, turns drama into spoken music. The exquisite freedom of her style serves an American story that is as much about our present as it is about our past.