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A Civil War epic

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review

Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” has its roots in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. And her “Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)” is epic, too, but in a different way.

In “Wars,” now being staged locally by Intrepid Theatre Company, Parks takes U.S. history — specifically the Civil War and the country’s sad history of slavery — as a starting point, but includes a few classic references as well.

Wrekless Watson and Tamara McMillian star in “Father Comes Home From The Wars.” (Photo by Daren Scott)

“Wars,” a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer, is written in three parts, performed in a single evening. (Parks envisions a nine-part cycle something like the August Wilson Pittsburgh cycle). Parks has written instrumental music for guitar and banjo, as well as several songs, many of which are brilliantly delivered by vocalist Leonard Patton.

This play takes place in 1862 and 1863 in far west Texas and in the Southern woods, both before and after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

(l to r) Wrekless Watson and Antonio Johnson (Photo by Daren Scott)

In the first part, a slave named Hero (Wrekless Watson) tries to decide whether to go to war with his “Boss-Master,” the Colonel (Tom Stephenson). The draw is the master’s promise of freedom; the drawback is the definite possibility that this is a ruse and the fact that Hero would be fighting with the slaveholding Rebels, against his own interest.

The other “less than desirable” slaves (Leader, played by Leonard Patton; Second, Third and Fourth, played by Rhys Green, Yvonne and Durwood Murray, respectively) and Penny (Tamara McMillian) speculate on Hero’s choice and what freedom might mean for him if he indeed is granted it.

(l to r) Wrekless Watson, Tamara McMillian and Leonard Patton (Photo by Daren Scott)

Hero asks his “adoptive” father Oldest Old Man (Antonio TJ Johnson) whether he should go, but the old man demurs, saying “I want you to decide for yourself.”

“Who would I be when I’m free that way?” Hero muses. “Something stolen.” But the possibility of freedom wins out and he finally decides to go to war.

There’s also a character named Homer, played wonderfully by Cortez L. Johnson. Homer does not go off to war, but stays home with Hero’s wife Penny (Tamara McMillian), who says she puts up with him only because her bed is empty with Hero gone.

(l to r) Tom Stephenson, Sean Yael-Cox (Photo by Daren Scott)

Part 2 (in my opinion, the best part) takes place in a wooded area in the South, where the lost Boss-Master Colonel and Hero try to figure out what to do with Smith (Sean Yael-Cox), a captive Union soldier with a badly wounded leg, kept in a wooden cage — while listening to the nearing cannon booms of both sides.

Tamara McMillian and Wrekless Watson (Photo by Daren Scott)

When the Colonel fails in his effort to get Smith to admit to a desire to own slaves, a riveting consideration of how a man’s worth is evaluated ensues. But the Colonel doesn’t hesitate to say, “I’m thankful every day that God made me white.”

The last chapter, titled “The Union Of My Confederate Parts,” returns to the plantation in 1863. Here, Penny still waits for Hero (now called Ulysses) while the rest of the slaves prepare to run away. Penny is deliriously happy when Hero/Ulysses does arrive … though he brings an unwelcome surprise.

It also introduces Durwood Murray as Hero’s faithful “Odyssey Dog,” which he plays with great spirit and panache.

The Emancipation Proclamation (signed in January of that year) and barely mentioned as an afterthought, gives more food for thought.

“Wars” has a properly spare set (designed by Sean Yael-Cox) and Jeanne Reith contributes appropriate costumes. There is also fine tech work from Karin Filijan (lighting) and TJ Fucella (sound).

Bravo to the entire cast as well. Well chosen and wondrously directed by Christy Yael-Cox, they give brilliant performances all around.

Director Yael-Cox has done the impossible again. She always takes on big challenges; this time, she and Parks offer a big, three-hour piece that makes us think without inspiring glances at watches.

—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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