Beautifully Brutal: FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (PARTS 1, 2, 3) at the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, The Royal Court Theatre

Suzan Lori-Parks has been on my distant radar for a very long time, as her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog is a modern classic in its own right. When I saw that her new series of plays were transferring to the Royal Court from the Public in New York, I was delighted to see her work so closely with the cast and to bring her vision of the piece to life.

Her writing technique is unique and fascinating to me and reading her plays makes that immediately obvious. The performances of the plays were actually followed by a discussion with Suzan about how she came to writing the play and hearing about her process and inspiration for the piece fascinated me endlessly. As a young writer and theatre enthusiast, I felt myself reaching for my phone to quickly type in some notes as she bestowed her knowledge upon us; she really is a phenomenal writer.

Father Comes Home From The Wars demonstrates how much of a fantastic writer that she is perfectly. The three plays – which are the first three in a series of nine that will follow an African American family through the past 200 years in West Texas – follow the life of Hero, an African American slave from the late 19th century who is owned by a man known as The Colonel. Surrounded by his fellow African-American slaves, Hero is faced with the choice between going to war with the Colonel or mutilating himself to have an excuse for not going. When he does finally decide to go, part two begins and we see him in a war zone with The Colonel and his war prisoner Smith, who is an American man from the other side of the war and doesn’t believe in slavery. Part Two continues and when Part Three rolls around, we see the aftermath of the war back at home. The play is witty, detailed and incredibly well thought about. Lori-Parks did say that she is a firm believer in re-writes and digging deeper in every draft of a play and that is clearly at play here as I fail to remember the last time I saw a play that felt so well developed and deep.

Dex Lee as the Odyssey Dog in Part 3 of Father Comes Home From The Wars
The performances were equally as spectacular as the writing was. Steve Toussaint gave an incredibly rich and complex performance as the show’s leading man Hero, someone who changes drastically over the course of the play and he manages to supplement both sides of Hero’s personality perfectly. John Stahl also did a fantastic job as The Colonel; I can’t imagine that it’s easy to play a white supremacist on stage in the 21st century with ease and conviction – as if it’s something that you truly believe in – but Stahl manages to embody the part perfectly, no matter how despicable the character may be. Dex Lee stole the show for me though as Fourth in Part 1 and the Odyssey Dog in Part 3. He was absolutely hilarious and in a play with such a deep and meaningful subject matter, his performance was refreshing.

The design of the piece was beautiful as well. Neil Patel has done a fantastic job in bringing the bottom of this suburban Texan garden to life with a shed and tree stumps to suit and while it may look minimal, the design behind it is expert, with the wooden viaduct that stands at the back of the stage that people pass over acting as a horizon. It managed to be complex and minimalist all at once and it’s a style that worked perfectly with the piece. Emilio Sosa also did a fantastic job with the costume design, especially with mixing some new items of clothing with older ones. It confused me at first when I saw a character in full period clothing but with a pair of Nike trainers, but Suzan Lori-Parks explained the decision after the show and it made a lot more sense: she wrote the play using modern English because the show is history, and history is right now. So, as a way of enhancing the similarities between the past and the present, they agreed that it was stylistically appropriate to have the characters wear some more modern items of clothing, just to show the rift in time between us and them. The idea also tied in well with the fact that a lot of asides were used which made the characters self-aware, which was something that struck me as odd at first, but it came clear that it was a conscious artistic decision with a lot more depth to it than I first thought by the end of the play.

John Stahl, Steve Toussaint and Tom Bateman in Part 2 of Father Comes Home From The Wars

All in all, Father Comes Home From The Wars is a perfect example of how good theatre can be if it’s well written at its core. Yes, the play does run long at a little over three hours, but as someone who is enthralled by meaty and lengthy drama, I was captivated from start to finish. If you’re a fan of August Wilson and his plays like Fences, then you’ll be sure to love this new political masterpiece.

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