Eboni Flowers and James Udom, foreground, give moving performances in “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III.” (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)

Eboni Flowers and James Udom, foreground, give moving performances in “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III.” (Courtesy American Conservatory Theater)

ACT’s ‘Father Comes Home’ a gripping Civil War epic

In Suzan-Lori Parks’ engrossing drama “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III,” the ambivalent enslaved man Hero — whose hero’s journey we follow through the Civil War — is a flawed hero indeed, if a hero at all.

But he’s entirely, heartbreakingly, human.

As in Homer’s “Odyssey,” Hero goes off to war; in this case, his “master,” a Confederate Army colonel, has promised Hero his freedom if he’ll accompany the master to battle.

And just as Ulysses left behind his faithful wife, Penelope, here Hero (so-named by his master) leaves behind his adoring wife, Penny.

But Parks’ epic diverges from Homer’s, getting increasingly complex — horrifying, hilarious, provocative — as it goes from Part I to III over the Civil War years (Parks, nothing if not ambitious, is aiming for a nine-part series; the remaining six parts are as yet unwritten).

And because Parks is exploring the quest for self-identity as well as examining America’s deepest moral failings, the characters themselves are multi-layered, from the existentially confused Hero (an appealing and vulnerable James Udom) to the stoic, one-footed Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez), with whom Hero had once planned to escape and who is now his nemesis; from the tough-minded Penny (Eboni Flowers) to a captive Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) locked in a cage; and from the colonel (Dan Hiatt) to Hero’s loyal dog, Odyssey (Gregory Wallace).

In this American Conservatory Theater production (co-produced by Yale Repertory Theatre), directed by longtime Parks colleague Liz Diamond, all elements coalesce beautifully to illuminate Parks’ rich, poetic dialogue and far-ranging ideas.

Set on a stage that’s bare but for a corrugated tin shack in Part I, then in Part II a “shady grove,” its trees represented by stark, building-site girders, this is a visually minimalist show (set designer, Riccardo Hernández), which makes the occasional looming silhouettes — in which the characters move slowly behind a scrim — stunning.

Diamond’s actors are superb, including a Greek-drama-like chorus of slaves played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, Chivas Michael and, at the press opening, understudy Britney Frazier, plus Steven Anthony Jones as a perhaps not-so-wise surrogate father to Hero.

To pick out just a few especially wonderful moments: Flowers’ anguished lament when told that Hero has died; Wallace’s wide-eyed, disingenuous talking dog; Hiatt’s drunken and sadistic colonel.

To add to the show’s riches, Martin Luther McCoy, as a sort of griot, links the parts together, playing guitar and singing songs Parks’ bluesy songs.

REVIEW
Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts I, II and III
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 20
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

ACTAmerican Conservatory TheaterBritney FrazierChivas MichaelDan HiattEboni FlowersFather Comes Home from the WarsGregory WallaceII and IIIJames UdomJulian Elijah MartinezLiz DiamondMartin Luther McCoyPart IRotimi AgbabiakaSteven Anthony JonesSuzan-Lori ParksTheaterTom Pecinka

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