But following Soulpepper’s new mandate to become Canada’s National Civic Theatre, the company’s announcement of its upcoming season includes a mini-festival of experimental contemporary solo performances and a celebration of Diwali including a performance of Twelfth Night (Piya Behrupiya) by India’s The Company Theatre.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s Obie Award-winning trilogy of plays Father Comes Home from the Wars, however, strikes a balance between the old and the new Soulpepper — it’s a contemporary play with the weight of a classic.
Under director Weyni Mengesha, responsible for hits like ‘Da Kink in my Hair, Kim’s Convenience, and Nicolas Billon’s Butcher, Soulpepper presents all three parts to Parks’s epic (inspired by The Odyssey) in one evening.
Father Comes Home from the Wars is anything but a daunting, endurance-building experience for the audience. With Parks’s poetic but current writing, Mengesha’s control of pace, and some thrilling key performances, Father Comes Home from the Wars seems to move faster than most 90-minute one-acts.
As mentioned, Parks splits her epic into three Parts.
Part 1, “A Measure of a Man,” takes place at a cabin in Texas in 1862, where a group of slaves wait for sunrise and take bets on whether Hero (Dion Johnstone, stoic yet vulnerable) is going to follow their master, The Colonel, to fight in the Rebel Army in the Civil War. If he goes, The Colonel has promised his freedom, but he’ll have to fight on the side that’s in favour of the notion of slavery altogether. There’s the influence of his companions as well—The Oldest Old Man (Walter Borden), who calls Hero his son (though not by blood), urges him to leave. Penny (a captivating Lisa Berry), Hero’s wife in every way but on paper, pleads with him to stay.
In each of Parks’s three Parts, there’s a basic conundrum presented as two separate sides: stay or go, right or wrong. But Parks also introduces a wild card into each scenario that deeply complicates what the audience has assumed.
Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” takes place on a temporary campsite with Hero, the Colonel (Oliver Dennis) and a captured Captain of the Union Army, Smith (Gregory Prest). While Parks suggests that the Colonel’s acceptance of slavery is both because of his belief in the superiority of whiteness (leaving the audience uncomfortably tense) and a misguided fatherly attitude toward Hero, Smith’s steadfast disgust to slavery plays a surprising foil to the Colonel—and in a surprising twist, to Hero himself as well.
Part 3, “The Union of my Confederate Parts,” takes us back to the cabin in Texas, where a group of escaping slaves are about to continue their journey once the sun sets, after being hidden successfully by Penny and Homer who weigh whether or not to follow them. But an unexpected messenger arrives to explain the events of the battlefield, and Hero, renamed as Ulysses, has a joyful reunion with Penny that doesn’t go as planned.
The culmination of all three Parts picks up threads of the hypocrisy and contradictions that seemed to have started when a hierarchical system was built upon the myth of race, and a value was first associated to a human being.
When the Colonel states “Hero knows his worth to the penny,” it could also be heard as “Hero knows his worth to Penny.” Which is truer in this case? Ideas of loyalty, allegiance, independence and family are flipped upside down when placed beside an explicitly racist atmosphere, and “freedom” is seen as a tangible thing that can be given by a piece of paper.
Parks’s script is simultaneously placed within a historical period, but the action unfolds in a sort of limbo space, helped by Lorenzo Savoini’s sparse, dark set. The backdrop of brown and black plywood gives a drearily beautiful hint of a horizon beyond the simple stage of dirt, stones, and logs.
Dana Osborne’s costumes also suggest the past and the present at the same time. So too does Parks’s mixture of poetic language and contemporary phrases, as well as modern music performed here by Divine Brown. The timelessness of Father Comes Home from the Wars makes it easy to see how today’s Black Lives Matter movement has been in the making for hundreds of years.
Anyone who has said “All Lives Matter” in earnest might want to take a trip to the Distillery District for this one.
To cap off a hot Toronto summer, Soulpepper is offering a top-notch trio of plays to suit any mood: the modern historical drama of Father Comes Home from the Wars, a contemporary spin on the classic in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a crowd-pleasing parody of The 39 Steps. With artistic director Albert Schultz’s ambition, I can sense a downtown summer theatre lineup to rival the out-of-town Stratford and Shaw festivals in the years to come.