“What will you decide, Hero?”
Tonight we saw a performance of the first three of the nine-play series Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks. The rest of the series has not been released yet, unfortunately. It’s set in West Texas in 1862, Hero, a slave, chooses to go to war with his master fighting for the Confederate army. Before Hero leaves he is faced with the decision to follow his master’s requests (thereby fighting for the wrong side), or refusing to leave (ensuring a punishment for the other slaves). During the war he meets a mulatto private in the Kansas Colored Brigade and lets him go free from his captivity with his master (a colonel). The colonel dies in battle and never gives Hero his freedom like he promised. After the Emancipation Proclamation is released, Hero is technically a “free” man, and yet he returns to the plantation. Penny (Hero’s fiance, practically) is pregnant with Homer’s (another slave) child and they are hosting runaway slaves until darkness. Hero, now Ulysses, returns to a home and a life that is disappearing before his eyes-he is left only with his dog. Unfortunately I feel I must skip many many important details because I have several points I need to move onto…
A very smart colleague of mine pointed out that each act of the play took place in a different part of the day even though it covers several months. Act one was early morning, because with the rising sun came Hero’s decision whether or not to leave for the war. Act two was set in the heat of the day in a shady grove on the battlefield. The colonel has taken Smith (Mulatto private for the Union) as a P.O.W. and is hiding out in the woods. As the afternoon fades (the war), Hero returns to home as night is about to fall. Although this play realistically spanned over several months, it did seem to pass in a day. The morning brings excitement about new experiences, the afternoon slops your sweaty and tired body down to lie and think, and night brings the darkness and loneliness that we all avoid.
After several minutes of debating Hero’s original worth at the slave auction, the master asks Hero what he will do once he’s free. Hero has no idea, which sends the colonel (aka the master) into a trance-like state. “I am grateful everyday that God made me white…” and thus began his monologue. As a fellow actor I highly commend anyone who can successfully play a horrible person. His monologue is easily summarized into this phrase, “For no matter how low I fall, and no matter how thoroughly I fail, I will always be white.” At first reading/hearing, all I could feel was like watching my ancestors piling guilt on top of my already deep grave of white self-consciousness. “This man stands for everything that we’re not, right?” I thought to myself, hopefully. The monologue right before this one was talking about how much the family would miss Hero if he left, because he has become so close to the family. I didn’t want to feel empathy for this man, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe it was just his performance, but his monologue seemed more like a confession than a proclamation. To me this seemed like the master realizing the horrible things that he has done and supported. Not only a realization of mortality but also a realization of decades worth of guilt finally falling on top of him. I believe some directors/ professors would be angry with me because I am basing my thoughts off of the acting rather than the text. It was as if the master was horrified at the thought of living Hero’s life, because he knew that he would never survive in the conditions that he set himself. Many of my colleagues disliked this section because it reminded them of a certain stereotype of people who fill social media platforms with paragraphs of political rubbish, all pointing to their own “innocence.” Captain Smith, the mulatto, was an extremely Caucasian looking male. He has a line saying that he could pass for white if he needed to, and yet the audience is sitting there thinking…”wait, you’re what?” It reminded me of how many southern children in grade school will yell out their link to Native American heritage, no matter how small the link may be.
My professor, Lee, planted the seeds of Greek tragedy in our minds in class on Monday, so I was looking especially for this in the performance. Lee suggested that there may be connections in style or writing to Greek tragedy, and he was completely right. To make sure that I was writing about the right thing, I looked up the definition of a Greek tragedy, “Tragedy dealt with the big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy commits some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant he has been. Then, as he slowly realizes his error, the world crumbles around him.” This, this is EXACTLY what happens in the play- line by line! There are actually several small foolish acts that Hero commits that makes him an extremely flawed protagonist (come on, I couldn’t say hero!).It’s difficult to say which was his biggest crime, because both have extensive pros and cons. If Hero had refused to go to war, his friends would’ve been punished and suffered for his stubbornness. However, he would’ve been able to remain in his steady and structured life and most likely marry Penny. I can’t believe I’m writing a pros list for remaining a slave, but I promise this was his internal struggle! If he goes to war, he leaves everything he knows and all loved ones behind for a possibly fake proposal of freedom upon the end of the war. Although, if he goes to war and survives he will (hopefully) be set free and able to begin to start a new life as a free man.
Continuing the influence of Greek tragedy, there was a chorus, an oracle, and a musician. Although I am the most confused with the musician. The music was especially important to the story, and I wonder if any of the younger audience members noticed this. (There were some extremely disruptive high school students near us, unfortunately.) I’m really glad I bought the program/script because I can look back at the lyrics to the songs. The musician only interacted with Hero and the colonel, but he would play his guitar/banjo throughout the entire play. I do not count the musician as a part of the chorus because of his detachment to the other chorus members. Although, there were singing choruses in Greek drama, the main chorus in this show was incorporated into the scenes. I guess I would say that the musician was the singing chorus, or the minstrel. NOT to be confused with minstrel shows, by any means. The musician played blues-style slide guitar and simple banjo songs. Enough about the musician, sorry. The chorus was made up of three actors, who played fellow slaves of Hero’s in the first act and were a group of runaway slaves in the third act. They were each given some personality, although not enough to make the audience really care about them. However, because they had personalized characteristics it made them more dimensional than the original Greek chorus members, which I greatly enjoyed. Penny, Hero’s fiance, has prophetic dreams throughout the play that vaguely predict the future. Unlike a true oracle, she can not conjure visions on demand, rather they are shown to her through her sleep.
The playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks, took full advantage of the Greek drama framework. Obviously we have our Hero, who is named by his master, the colonel. Hero is presented as a man who always does what is right and good for all people, a very just man who is known for his honesty.Hero is somewhat of an anti-hero, because of the dilemmas he faces and the choices he makes. For example, before the play began we learn that Hero turned in his “friend,” Homer (eh, eh?), after the colonel promises freedom in return for Homer’s whereabouts. So as the play begins Hero is faced with another (most likely) false promise from his master. If he goes to war with him, he will be granted his freedom once the war is over. If the colonel did not keep his promise before, why would he keep it now? After Homer was brought back Hero was pushed to cut off Homer’s foot or else Hero would’ve been shot. Once the truth about Homer’s foot is uncovered, the characters and the audience are shown this side of our Hero that we do not want to see. Except for the character Hamlet, most people do not want their heroes to be flawed. Heroes are good people purely for the sake of being good and of course they would never do anything that might flaw their character, right? On the other hand it is reassuring to see a flawed hero because it reminds the audience that good people make mistakes as well. It’s hard to see an icon’s gilded paint chip off of their statuesque build. So, we have our hero, which means there must be a villain. Or, at least there must be someone who is keeping our hero from achieving their goal. This of course was the colonel. Although I refer to my previous argument showing how I was able to empathize (maybe totally crazy of me) with his character.
Going back to the flawed hero, I will turn to the title: Father Comes Home from the Wars. After the war ends, Hero returns thinking of himself as the new father figure for his home. Both his master and his (not blood related) father have died, which makes Hero the next to protect “the nest.” Penny and Homer practically scoff at his feeble attempts of control, and decide to runaway with the rest of the slaves. An overview: So there is the “father” coming home; both of his father figures have died; Hero returns and tries to control everyone around him; Hero drinks from his masters flask; and ends up trying to place power over Odyssey Dog, his talking dog. It felt so sad and slightly unnerving to watch Hero (now called Ulysses) attempt to assert his dominance over a group of people who have moved on. We were watching everything crumble around him. ALTHOUGH, Hero returned from the war telling Penny (who had patiently waited for Hero to return) that he had married a woman while he was gone and she was coming to live with everyone. That was a big shock for everyone.
“Old stories, they guide us/ Each its own North Star/ You don’t know them/ and how could you?…Years and years ago..What could they have to do with you?” Greek drama has been re-invented and performed throughout the years, and still the basic plot lines remain exhilarating for audiences. We all crave a “Hero” that we can believe in and see ourselves in. Even today, men (and women) of little substance are made into icons because of the power of society. By substance I am not claiming that they are worthless humans, although some online forums may scream that, rather I am stating that they are no grander than your next door neighbour. Many cannot deal with the power that comes with becoming a public icon, and for some reason the public will chastise them for their weaknesses. Storytelling in general will always be extremely powerful. Usually stories teach us lessons (whether we realize it or not), and it seems that these lessons still need to be heard to this very day.
“Seems like the worth of a colored man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave”
A huge component of these plays was self-worth and self-identification. As someone who is given a name, even given a life, Hero fears freedom. Freedom brings a “lack of worth” for Hero, because he prides himself in how much he is worth as a slave. This is why he chooses a name for himself after the war-Ulysses. After he frees the Union soldier he wears his Union jacket under his Confederate uniform as a reminder of who he really is, or who is he becoming. Hero was not ready (maybe not brave enough) to leave his master and join the union, but he kept the jacket as something that was his. I believe this is also why he got married, because he wanted to go and do something that wasn’t requested or expected of him by someone. Although this meant he was betraying Penny, he was making his own decision. As I look around Facebook this week I see people posting “Three Characters that Represent ME.” I know that it is meant out of pure frivolity, but I can’t help but question why we need to classify ourselves in terms of people who are written to be more extraordinary than real people? Do we feel so insecure in our own characteristics (or lack thereof I guess) that we must label ourselves? I don’t think I would’ve put so much psychology studies into it if I hadn’t seen the show last night.
One last quote:
“Aristotle argued that tragedy cleansed the heart through pity and terror, purging us of our petty concerns and worries by making us aware that there can be nobility in suffering. He called this experience ‘catharsis’.” There are several other things that I could’ve talked about with this play, so forgive me if I skipped over a part that you may have thought was incredibly important.
Congrats, you have made it to the end of this post! Please collect your prize from your local hob goblin and proceed in life knowing that you are a champion.
Tragedy quote was borrowed from https://www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/background/24c.html