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Current Issue, Vol. 33 No. 1

Unhappy is the Land that Needs a Hero: The Mark of the Marketplace in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1-3

by Michael P. Jaros
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 33, Number 1 (Fall 2020)
ISNN 2376-4236
©2020 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Appearing within the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement and the fraught national conversations over the legacies of the American Civil War, Suzan Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1-3 is her first full-length play set during that war, focusing specifically on the final period of American chattel slavery and the moment of Emancipation.[1] The work remains timely within a contemporary political environment where both racism and resistance to it are resurgent. It also departs in a number of structural and thematic ways from her previous works for the stage.

Scholars have examined Parks’s plays that indirectly explore the period’s contemporary resonances, specifically her two works about black Abraham Lincoln impersonators, The America Play (1994) and Topdog/Underdog (2001), in some detail.[2] Her main characters in those works—The Foundling Father of the America Play and Link and Booth of Topdog/Underdog—both always already exist in the shadow of the Civil War President and signer of the Emancipation Proclamation. The figures they cut are perpetually perceived through Lincoln’s own cut out (which even features as a prop in The America Play). However, the range of focus of Father Comes Home is considerably broader, indeed epic, in scope, as Parks radically revises Homer’s Odyssey to place it in the Civil-War-Era South.[3] In moving her emphasis off Lincoln or his imitators, a chorus of varied voices takes center-stage.

Asked about her play’s topicality at the American Repertory Theatre in 2015, Parks was quick to point out that all her characters’ lives mattered:

You know, [the characters in the play] were human. That’s the thing…I would say…that is one of my charges as an artist. And that is the only way that I am interested in, really, addressing what people call the race question…is just that reminding people that my people are people. And under that comes everything.[4]

The expansion of focus of one or two persons to people helps contextualize Parks’s comments about the race question and her characters’ humanity: as we witness the existential traumas of enslavement, Parks reminds us that all her staged people are people, not just her hero. In doing so, she addresses a critical need in contemporary representations of slavery to eschew the classic heroic narrative, allowing for a broader structural critique of the systems of valuation and ranking by which slaves were perceived. Parks has her character Smith memorably allude to this idea of marketplace measurement in Part Two of her play:

Maybe even with Freedom, that mark, huh, that mark of the marketplace, it will always be on us. And so maybe we will always be twisting and turning ourselves into something that is going to bring the best price.[5]

With the staging of Father Comes Home, Parks engages in an ongoing cultural argument about this “mark of the marketplace” in contemporary notions of African American identity. In so doing, she confronts larger structural systems of racism and the current economic system (capitalism) that sustains it. Smith’s quote highlights an issue Parks touched on before in her two Lincoln plays and further refines in Father Comes Home, specifically black participation in this game of self-appraisal, of buying into this idea of the ranking of life. Private Smith’s words about “always twisting and turning ourselves into something that is going to bring the best price [my emphasis],” highlights the communal economic trauma of slavery and its resonances in the present for black communities as a whole. Such a collective emphasis helps to resurrect this communal history, ending what Erica Edwards calls an historical “silencing” of the many agents involved in the struggle for freedom in favor of the “implicit valorization of singular, charismatic leadership”[6] which itself “values” certain persons more than others.

Existing scholarship on Father Comes Home from the Wars contains little critical examination of the radical implications of her choral characters. Nadine Knight’s examination of notions of home, nostos, and Parks’ reconfiguration of the Homeric epic primarily discusses the protagonist of all three parts, Hero. Similarly, Paula Guerrero provides a deep, sustained reading of Hero’s contradictory nature, fitting him within a larger group of anti-heroic characters appearing in Parks’s oeuvre. However, the Choruses receive less critical attention: they are described as somewhat “homogenized,” and notable in their absence from Part Two of the work.[7] Paul Carter Harrison goes so far as to suggest that the Choruses in fact revert to the worst elements of blackface minstrelsy in an anodyne offering which ultimately amounts to a toned down, less-then-traumatic view of slavery for predominantly white audiences.[8]

What I propose to argue here is that Parks’s two Choruses are considerably more radical than previous scholarship has suggested. Two different choral groups appear in her play—a “Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves” in Part 1 and  “The Runaway Slaves” in Part 3—yet the two Choruses are comprised of the same actors.[9] In so naming them, Parks stages the transition from property (in the form of exterior valuation, they are “less than desirable”) to freedom: (they are agents stealing themselves and thus gaining some measure of self-determination as runaways). Their embodiment shifts from being reactionary to radical. Furthermore, Part Two, which includes no Chorus, is a necessary step in this shift in thinking about heroism, capitalism, and valuation that Parts One, Two, and Three collectively undertake. My line of departure involves thinking specifically about Brechtian Epic form, especially as formulated by Liz Diamond’s readings of the gestus and alienation effect. Through a series of performative interventions primarily involving the Choruses, Parks directly equates heroism with marketplace value. Responding to Harrison’s critique that the mythic form and the Choruses make the deprivation of slavery more “palatable,” I argue that Parks’s use of epic form allows the spectator to instead, in Diamond’s words “see and hear [about] it afresh,”[10] and in a way that is not palatable but confrontational. Specifically, we are confronted with the larger, structural implications of slavery on a mass of people when we deemphasize the singular, heroic protagonist, thus giving way to a more substantial criticism of bondage, self-valuation, and the economics of capitalism that sustained the peculiar institution and in turn survive well beyond it.

A wealth of scholarship details how the development of the modern system of international capital and slavery were inextricably intertwined, and—along with it—ideas of individual competition and self-valuation. These “proprietorial notions of the self,” as Saidiya Hartman terms them, suffused black life and continued to do so after Emancipation.[11] Edward Baptist argues that the “expansion of slavery and financial capitalism [became] the driving force in an emerging national economic system” in the Antebellum US. Slaves’ financial worth was meticulously calculated via a complex network of valuation established by professional slave traders.[12] This price, as Caitlyn Rosenthal demonstrates, varied directly with “usefulness” on the market. Babies had low value, as did older slaves. Price topped out in the mid-twenties for both men and women. “The prices for enslaved people changed for many reasons,” she remarks, “age, sickness, or health. The acquisition of skill, or changes in the market” but also for disobedience or attempts at escape.[13] Most insidious was the way in which slaves internalized this fiscal language, this “mark of the marketplace,” even using the term “depreciation” do describe their own changes in value when they themselves faced potential sale.[14] Consequently, self-measurement and assessment are part and parcel of her characters’ dialogue in the play. “Mark it” is a constant refrain, which, as Laura Dougherty remarks, is all to close in pronunciation to “market” to be lost on the audience.[15]

Opposing this system of competition and individual valuation were forms of collective resistance by a variety of means, especially via performance. After the war, and well into the twentieth century, these arose to combat structural racism and the economic inequalities that accompanied them. As Cedric Robinson describes it in his seminal work Black Marxism, the black radical tradition was borne out of a need to “imaginatively re-create a precedent metaphysic while being subjected to enslavement, racial domination and repression,” and this was most consistently, effectively done via collective action.[16] Fred Moten elaborates that such performances had a radical ability, especially via the improvisation of an ensemble, to cause a momentary “break” in the ideology of bodily commodification which “passes on the material heritage across the divide that separates slavery and ‘freedom.’”[17] The first example he gives of such radical action is in fact a chorus of singers that Frederick Douglas hears shortly after the infamous beating of his Aunt Hester in the Autobiography, a group that challenges, through its vocalized revisions, the violent performance of power that is the master lashing Hester and her screams in response.[18] Parks’s Choruses likewise point towards radical action, towards a break away from the heroic ideals which are all too tied to capitalist notions of individualism, self-valuation, and competition.

This is a timely move, as heroic slave narratives remain resilient in contemporary culture. Soyica Diggs Colbert and Robert Patterson reflect on the lack of contemporary critical insight afforded by such traditional narratives. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained, which features Jamie Foxx as a black, avenging superhero let loose on southern slaveholders, offers what Colbert terms “unfettered individualism for its male protagonist as a remedy for the burdensome legacy of slavery,” which is at once “a comforting and deceptive remedy.”[19] Similarly, Patterson asserts in his analysis of 12 Years a Slave that protagonist Solomon Northrup’s own narrative, with its heroic idealization of “self-help and individual success” reinforces the dominant order, namely white, Protestant, capitalist notions of rugged self-reliance. Each narrative’s emphasis on the exceptional individual fails to address the “larger pattern of black suffering” of the vast majority of those under the yoke of slavery, as well as slavery’s link to contemporary structural racism and continued black self-appraisal in financial terms.[20]

Parks de-centers the original Homeric hero, a character she simply dubs Hero in Parts One and Two, and Ulysses (invoking two white men, both Homer’s protagonist’s Latin name and the name of the leader of the Union armies, Ulysses S. Grant) in Part Three. Despite the hopes of the Chorus and other characters that he is and should remain exceptional, that he should both be measured and valued as such, Hero instead proves to simply be human and unable to personally overcome the ontological negation resulting from his enslavement and its dependent valuation. [21] In the transition from Part One to Three, it is to the Chorus and the secondary characters Homer (his foil) and Penny (his partner) that we must increasingly look to for some collective, future possibility of freedom.

A Measure of a Man

From the moment the curtain rises, measurement dominates the dramatic action. Part One, aptly titled A Measure of a Man, opens with the Chorus Leader “measuring the night by holding a hand up to the sky.”[22] This gest by which time is marked recurs throughout the act, and is often accompanied by Parks’s signature “Spells,” in which a character’s name is repeated in the text without being accompanied by any dialogue:

Chorus Leader
Chorus Leader
Chorus Leader

Second
How much time we got?[23]

Spells transpire outside language, and in this case function as a Brechtian gestus of appraisal. The gestus, Diamond remarks, is “a gesture, a word, an action, a tableau by which, separately or in series, the social attitudes encoded in the playtext become visible to the spectator.”  The gestus thus “opens [the audience] up to the social ideologies that inform its production.”[24] Here, the social ideology involves measurement, marking, and assessment. Collectively, such gests engender spectatorial alienation from the event at hand. We gain enough aesthetic distance to see a familiar exchange in a new, critical light.

In these exchanges, night and the coming day are assessed in slave-time: with the day shall come the end of their pseudo-freedom, the end of their limited, stolen time as people and the beginning of their time as chattel. As Part One proceeded in the ART production, more and more orange light flooded the stage as this inevitable moment of daybreak approached. The ever-approaching day will also bring with it Hero’s decision as to whether he shall follow the Boss-Master to war as his aide-de camp in the Confederate army. If he does so, his master has promised him freedom upon his return. If he refuses, he will have to stay behind and face his punishment, a punishment that all the other characters must also endure.

These first few moves set the dramatic tempo of Part One. All the dominant actions of A Measure of a Man involve sizing up, and it is the Chorus, not Hero, that determines the dramatic action. In betting on Hero’s choice, they are monetizing the dramatic stakes of the play, and in so doing are drawing our attention to the fact that we as an audience have done the same thing: we have paid to see this spectacle and also to assess Hero’s choice. As Diamond puts it, these betting and marking gests force the spectator to “engage with her own corporeality” in looking and assessing the black bodies onstage for their respective measures, particularly Hero’s.

Harvey Young examines an earlier manifestation of Parks’s use of Choruses in Venus, whose protagonist is Saartjie Baartman, a nineteenth century South African woman who was toured across England and France as “The Venus Hottentot,” due in no small part to white audiences’ obsession with the size of her posterior. That play’s Chorus “continually reminds the audience that the play is about looking at [her],” ensuring that our compassion for her “anchors itself in our own complicity in her spectacularization.”[25] We can only feel sympathy for the protagonist after we objectify her as much as the Chorus does. In Father Comes Home, the Chorus’ need to size up Hero also goes hand in hand with the audience’s, yet what Young terms spectacularization is even more overt: not only is the Chorus betting money themselves on Hero’s actions, but Hero is literally a slave, and his measure in that sense has an exact number (his selling price). They and we are participating in a system that reinforces such financial objectification. Moreover, the Chorus of Father Comes Home exists within the same world as Hero. Whereas in Venus the Chorus often stands outside the dramatic action and comments on it, the Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves are decidedly within the play and suffer along with Hero, if not more than him.

Their shared world of appraisal is reified in the exchange that ensues as the other Chorus members (Third and Fourth) join the first two onstage. The productions at ART and the Public Theatre, both directed by Jo Bonney, reinforced the choral synchronicity by placing the first, second, third, and fourth in a strong line cheating upstage; we see each arriving in turn to imitate the next at measuring the night, and all use the same gest. Though they all admit that the Leader is best at night-measurement, their appraisal of Hero himself is different:

Fourth
You may be the best at measuring the Night
But that don’t make you the best at measuring Men.

Third
Early risers have their say but we gotta make our own
choices on this
Each of us gotta make a measure of the man
We gotta choose for ourselves
(Rest)
I got a brass button
I might be betting that Hero is –
Going to the War.[26]

Parks’s “Rests,” another consistent feature in her dramaturgy, afford a slightly more restrained moment of reflection or distancing than the Spell. The above Rest occurs immediately before the Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves arrange their bets with their varied prized possessions (spoons, buttons, etc). These people, themselves property, are betting their own scant properties, reinforcing the system of exchange, property and assessment—of marking—in which they are themselves caught. The forms of resistance open to the Less than Desirable Slaves are, as Moten notes, “always already embedded in the structure they would escape,”[27] namely these proprietorial notions of the self. Neil Patel’s barren stage-space for the ART production reinforces the structural desolation within which these choices transpire: it is a vast, rust-colored expanse with only a short stump downstage right and a withered tree-trunk stage right of the tiny slave cabin placed center stage. The choice to be—indeed the seeming inevitability of doing so (“we gotta”)—is foregrounded by the Rest, the stage-space within which the betting transpires, and the resulting false implication that there is some sort of real, meaningful “choice” to be made. Alienation allows us to parse out these symbols. Ultimately, their bets and their choices, along with Hero’s, are existentially meaningless in this desolate space: they contribute nothing towards changing their current position of enslavement.

Nevertheless hero-betting remains, as Colbert maintained of Django Unchained, “a comforting but deceptive remedy”: “There is a kind of sport to be had,” the Chorus Leader remarks, “In the consideration of someone else’s fate.”[28] This sport is the distraction that the Rest highlights; this pregnant pause troubles the preceding words. In betting on Hero’s decision, the Chorus members avoid confronting their own stark situation as being one without any real choice. Just as betting on the length of the night will not stop the arrival of day, betting on Hero’s choice shall not result in any change in their own condition. Moreover, in so doing they acquiesce to being inscribed as undesirable so that Hero might become individually exceptional. “Prime hands” like Hero were historically set up as an ideal against which all other slaves were assessed vis-à-vis labor performance and (as a result) financial worth.[29] All are caught up in these acts of appraisal, and we are continuously made aware of the contradictions lurking within the heart of these “choices,” as well as our own complicity in spectatorial appraisal.

The slave Homer brings the futility of such sport home soon after arriving onstage. Homer shall not bet, he says, because he realizes the choice is meaningless:

Homer
Ain’t no game, Hero.
Cause you shouldn’t be doing neither.
Cause you shouldn’t stoop
To do neither
Cause both choices, Hero,
To stay here and work the field
To go there and fight in the field
Both choices are
Nothing more than the same coin
Flipped over and over
Two sides of the same coin
And the coin ain’t even in your pocket.[30]

Homer, with his vision of an oscillating coin that is not even Hero’s to spin, breaks in upon the small world within which the Chorus and Hero have lived until this moment. The talk of heroism and the resulting bets are suddenly revealed for what they are: someone else’s stories, stories that don’t apply to the people onstage and will do no one there any good. Each side of the coin means collective suffering: staying means mass-punishment for all the slaves on the plantation, and leaving means helping ensure slavery’s national continuation (by aiding the armies of the Confederacy).

The Chorus’ belief in Hero begins to falter immediately after Homer’s monologue. They become more assertive, stepping in and prompting Hero to make some choice. When he initially announces that he shall not go to war, the Chorus steps in to remind him that they shall be punished far worse than he shall be for his choice:

Leader
That’s right. He’ll beat him hard and
He’ll beat us twice as hard.
Second
For his 10 lashes, we’ll get 20.
Third
For his 20, we’ll get 40
Fourth
For his 50, we’ll get 100
Hero
I won’t go. I can’t. My heart’s been set against it from the start.

Chorus
Hero
Chorus
Hero

(Rest)

Old Man
So you’ll have to harm yourself in some way
To take the edge off Boss’ anger.[31]

The Chorus must remind Hero that his decisions have trickle-down effects on the bodies of the Less-Than-Desirable Slaves, who are quick to calculate the amplification of punishment that shall be inflicted on them due to their subordinate value to Hero. A series of Spells and a Rest alienate us from the action so that we have space to reflect upon this moment. It is Hero’s adoptive father, the Oldest Old Man, who must prompt him towards an action that takes the others’ fates into account. Hero’s exceptionalism is founded upon a competitive individualism that operates at the collective’s expense. Consequently, he does not take into account the collateral damage that his choice shall inflict on everyone else.

Far from Carter’s vision of the Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves as reanimated blackface minstrels or Guerrero’s reading of the “stereotypical roles” which they serve in the drama, what we witness as they begin to challenge Hero is an assertion of their own, collective identity. Although the first Chorus and the second are not the same, they are composed of the same actors and thus remain corporeally connected. The Runaway Slaves are the embodied successors of the Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves, who take these first steps towards agency at the end of Part One. As Moten attests, the improvisation of such ensembles is integral to any comprehension of the black, radical tradition. Such choral questioning forces a “revaluation or reconstruction of value.” [32] The ensemble, deprived of their hero, are forced to improvise.

Homer proposes an alternative to this choice-less choice, something the Choral Leader agrees represents a viable “third way”: Freedom, for Homer, cannot be given; it must be taken. Freedom means stealing yourself and taking others with you. The aptly named Homer thus gives voice to one of the central ideas of the entire work: just as much as slavery is collectively endured, Freedom[33] must also be collectively, clandestinely acquired. Hero, however, views such an act as property theft: “A Stolen-Freedom?” he remarks, “That ain’t me.”[34] Running off quite literally means stealing himself and stealing Freedom would deprive him of the central choice he must make as a hero in act one, a choice Homer implies does not really matter. Moreover, stealing one’s self represents a radical exit from the status quo. Since criminality is the “only form of slave agency recognized by law,” Hartman attests, “agency of theft…challenged the figuration of the black captive as devoid of will.”[35] Running off is a radical choice that opens up the possibility of further choices. It becomes a choice that in fact matters.

The problematics of Hero’s individualism are reinforced by the last significant development of Part One. Homer reveals to the Chorus that he and Hero had both, previously planned to escape together and that Hero betrayed Homer to the Boss-Master in exchange for an earlier promise of Freedom. Homer’s foot was taken as punishment, and Hero was forced to cut it off himself. Homer’s missing foot, and his limp, remain indelible onstage markers of this legacy of dehumanizing violence, and also of Hero’s failure to act heroically in the face of such terrible choices.

Confronted with Hero’s un-heroic actions, the Chorus then makes their own choice, removing Hero’s name from him just as his crucial moment of choice arrives, along with the sun, at the end of the act.

Leader
And we can’t call you Hero.
Penny
That’s still his name
Third
Maybe we won’t call you anything at all.
The Sun Rises
Chorus
Penny
Hero
Homer
Chorus

Second
The sun us up.

Hero
And my need to leave is clear.
Not run off, Homer,
Although I can see there’s value in it,
But it’s not my road.
I’ll go trot behind the Master
The non-Hero that I am.[36]

As the sun rises over the stage, Homer, Penny, and the Chorus’ Spells surround Hero’s, suggesting a shift in the dramatic hierarchy of the scene. We, along with the other figures onstage, await Hero’s response. It is finally the Second who must prompt Hero that the moment of choice has arrived. His resulting decision to leave is decidedly anti-climactic; it is only a default reaction to the revelation of his betrayal of Homer and the larger community. It would be unfeasible, now, for him to stay. In both the Public and ART productions, Hero slowly exits up a vast ramp, which slants down, stage right, across the entire backstage area. This afforded an extremely elaborate entrance for Hero earlier in the work, high above the others, yet it is now all of the Less than Desirable Slaves who escort him up it for his antiheroic exit.

The collective mourns the loss of faith in Hero’s heroism, yet we are at once confronted with the stark, impossible nature of the choices put before him within the context of slavery. Parks thus gives the play its tragic resonance, but also opens up the possibility of Homer’s “third way” towards salvation: relinquishing the need for heroes and striking out for Freedom as a group. “The significance of becoming or belonging together in terms other than those defined by one’s status as property, will-less object, and the not-quite human.” Hartman maintains, “should not be underestimated.”[37] Such radical acts are certainly worthy of memorialization, as they transpired against immense historical odds put in place by a system set up to directly oppose communal resistance. The actions the Chorus takes here represent the beginnings of what she terms a “latent political consciousness,”[38] one more radically developed by the Runaway Slaves in Part Three.

A Battle in the Wilderness

As Part Two: A Battle in the Wilderness, opens, we quickly realize that it contains no Chorus; the choral measurement of a man is replaced by the singular, appraising measure of the white slaveholder. Whereas Parts One and Three Occur in the same locale—”a slave cabin in the middle of nowhere. Far West Texas.”—A Battle in the Wilderness, transpires on the frontier of the war itself, in “a wooded area in the South. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere.”[39] We might well assume that it is here that Hero shall distinguish himself before “coming home from the wars.” The “battle” that is depicted is more existential than actual, however, as the fighting is only heard in the far-off distance; we remain “pretty much” off the historical map, in the middle of nowhere.

Just as Hero’s ability to be a hero—with actual choices—was challenged by the Chorus in A Measure of a Man, his ownership of his own self is called into question in A Battle in the Wilderness. He is physically objectified as chattel by the only white character in the play, his master the Colonel, in what Hartman has described as form of “coerced theatricality” associated with the spectacle of the auction block, what she terms the “theatre of the marketplace.”[40] The measurement and bidding of the auction block replaces the measuring of the night and the choral betting on Hero’s choice in Part One. The difference between the two plays’ forms of measurement is minimal; one follows naturally from the other, as the Chorus learned its sport of determining Hero’s measure through the language and the performative conventions of the slave auction. The pull-away from the Chorus in Part Two allows for a sustained focus on such valuation via performance, preparing the way for the complete break from it which the Runaway Slaves accomplish in Part Three.

Consequently, the central assessing event of A Battle in the Wilderness is a mock-slave auction. In staging such a spectacle, Parks taps into a macabre form of performance with a long, sordid history, whose primary purpose was to mark black bodies with a marketplace value, as Joseph Roach so memorably shows in his examination of such auctions in Antebellum New Orleans. “The staged exhibition of bodies for the purpose of selling them,” he maintains, “marks those bodies publicly as not possessed of themselves as property.”[41] Moreover, the mark of the marketplace was often applied to black bodies as a performance. Slave auctions became, Roach attests, a popular form of entertainment, even for those not actually participating in the bidding.[42] Those on the auction block were frequently dressed in evening wear and made to promenade, and even dance, before later being stripped down by buyers for the final inspection. In staging such coerced theatricality, Parks again challenges our complicity in an even more stark assessment of Hero’s measure. For Diamond, such alienation allows a way to put that historicity on view, specifically “in a sign system [western commercial theatre] governed by a particular apparatus, usually owned and operated by men for the pleasure of a viewing public whose major wage earners are male.”[43] Although Diamond speaks about the gendered body here, it is equally applicable to the white, masculine appraising view of the theatre of the marketplace, and how its historicity is re-staged in a contemporary commercial theatre viewing black bodies, specifically Hero’s body, onstage.

The setup for this performance occurs early on in Part Two as the Colonel converses with his captive, Smith, a mixed-race private in a colored regiment of the Union army who has successfully passed as a white Captain by taking the dead man’s uniform, thereby avoiding death at the hands of the Colonel. Hero, Smith, and the Colonel have become separated from their respective armies in the aftermath of a battle. While Hero is collecting firewood, the Colonel assures his captive that Hero shall not attempt to escape:

You might have commanded them but I own them. And because I own them I have an understanding of them that you don’t have and never will. Hero knows his worth to the penny, and, well, the poor thing is honest. Meaning he won’t run off not now not ever. He told me one day: “Master,” he said, “running off, well that would be the same as stealing, he said.[44]

Choral watching and assessing are replaced in Part Two by the direct assessment of the white slaveholder. We witness this assessment’s ideological internalization in both Hero and Smith: whether or not one can, or should, steal one’s self—something Hero did in fact refuse to do in Part One—becomes the internal battle in the wilderness of Part Two’s title.

Smith is subsequently coerced into visually assessing Hero in a mock, two-part slave auction that the Colonel initiates to follow up on his claim about how well he “understands” Hero, which for the Colonel means Hero’s attachment to his own financial value. The Colonel collateralizes Freedom, something he has already done to Hero at least twice thus far: he promises that if Smith can guess Hero’s actual price, he will free both of them, and Hero may return with Smith to the Union lines. Despite initial protestation, Smith ultimately agrees to participate, as the chances of freeing another man are too hard to pass up. In so doing, however, Smith plays the Colonel’s game and according to his rules; he replaces the Chorus in their measuring game of Part One. The Colonel’s line, “We’ll school him, just for sport,” echoes the Choral Leader’s remark about the “sport to be had” in betting on another’s fate in Part One. Like the Chorus before him, Smith now measures and assesses worth as attached to the black body, a collective, projected “them” that includes his own body. In accepting the wager of freedom and the rules of the game, Hero agrees to be the spectacle and Smith agrees to be the appraising audience. Both play into Hero’s spectacularization, as do we, again, by watching and guessing at his financial measure. The spectator is forced, as Diamond puts it, to “engag[e] with her own temporality. She, too, becomes historicized…her material conditions, her politics, her skin, her desires.”[45] It is impossible for us to avoid considering the material conditions of this spectacle as we sit watching it in the theatre.

As the mock-auction begins in the ART production, Hero is made to stand on the downstage stump and be inspected by Smith as if on the auction block.[46] He occupies the center of this stage-image, keenly reinforcing a series of groupings Bonney created in the first play in which the Chorus, Penny, and Homer surround the center-stage Hero, yet now in Part Two Hero is so centered as chattel to be sold. Taking his role as auctioneer, the Colonel describes Hero as “hardworking, trustworthy, [and as] smart but still compliant.”[47] Smith-as-bidder is forced to demean Hero by inspecting the inside of his mouth to make sure he is not getting a bum deal. Ultimately, Smith places Hero’s worth at one thousand dollars, which, we learn, is two hundred too high. Although Smith has been coerced into participating in this act of valuation, it is Hero who must conclude the inspection: the Colonel forces him to name his own price.

Despite this act of shame, Hero rebels against the Colonel by remarking that he might, in fact, be worth more now and, if the Confederacy loses the war, he might be worth much more. Smith agrees, calling this “good thinking.” Such self-assessment was historically key to the auction process. If a slave refused to help sell himself for the highest price possible, whipping would ensue.[48] Hero, and to a certain extent Smith, remain incapable of conceiving of their own worth outside of a given fiscal value, even when imagining a post-emancipation future. Hero can rebel only by placing his valuation higher; thinking outside the mark of the marketplace remains impossible.

Hero’s rebellion pushes the auction to the edge of the point of no return. The Colonel orders Hero to “undo himself” and stand nude before them for his final inspection. One of the largest Spell-interruptions in the script follows:

Colonel
Undo yourself Hero.
Hero
Hero

Hero is thinking, no fucking way.

Smith
Stop.
Colonel
Undo yourself I said.
Smith 
Stop.

Colonel
Hero
Smith
Colonel

Colonel
Alright. For his sake. We wouldn’t want the Yankee to die of fright.
The Colonel approaches Hero and, quickly raising his riding crop, strikes him across the face.[49]

Hero steps down from the stump and the Colonel’s control over the performance ends, yet its effects on Hero reverberate through Parks’s silent architecture: the Colonel’s own final Spells frame the two other characters’ experience of whatever transpires there. Parks also gives a rare, authorial reading of what Hero’s long solo Spell entails (Hero is thinking, no fucking way), deviating from her earlier suggestion in her essay “Elements of Style,” that directors and actors should interpret a Spell “as they best see fit.”[50] No fucking way, it seems, must this moment be left to chance: Hero’s “undoing himself” would be a point of no return; it is and must remain unstageable. Yet the threat of the Colonel being able to take away any semblance of Hero’s humanity, to reveal him as merely meat, saturates the air. It is just before this “no fucking way” moment becomes real that the Colonel ends the performance, so that the “Yankee,” and the audience, shall not “die of fright.” Yet after this seeming release of performative tension, the mock-auction concludes with one of the only significant onstage acts of violence in all three parts of the play. The threat of physical punishment, torture, or death that guarantees slavery is quickly, tersely realized with the Colonel’s brief movement.[51]

The auction block act is powerful enough to cause Smith to momentarily drop his own performance of passing: “you don’t know anything about us,” he remarks to the Colonel, before catching himself and suggesting that “us” means “Yankees.”[52] Seeing Hero on display is all too close to Smith’s own remembered trauma of being sold at auction. Parks deftly demonstrates that this spectacle reinforces how Smith and Hero see each other, the real “us.” The performative residue of the auction act hangs over the two men even after the Colonel leaves the stage to check on the armies’ movements. Left alone, Smith reveals to Hero that he’s really a Private in a Union colored regiment, not a Captain, and therefore a mixed-race, former slave himself. We must quickly reassess our understanding of all that has just transpired. It is implied that Smith gave his own price as his guess for Hero’s worth, as he later tells Hero that he cost around the same price as Hero did when he was last sold. Smith’s estimation of Hero is thus tied to the former’s own perceived fiscal value.

Smith, however, goes on to oppose their prices and attendant value with the oft-debated and enigmatic term, “Freedom.” Echoing Homer in Part One, Smith holds out Freedom as something that exists outside of valuation:

Smith
There’s more to Freedom than I can explain, but believe me it’s like living in Glory.
Hero
Who will I belong to?
Smith
You’ll belong to yourself.
Hero
So when a Patroller comes up to me, when I’m walking down the road to work or to do what-have-you and a Patroller comes up to me and says “Whose Nigger are you Nigger? I’m gonna say, “I belong to myself?” Today I can say, “I belong to the Colonel”
Imagining being confronted by a Patroller, Hero holds up his hands. Reminiscent of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”
Hero
“I belong to the colonel,” I says now. That’s how come they don’t beat me. But when Freedom comes and they stop me and ask and I say, “I’m on my own. I’m on my own and I own my ownself.” You think the’ll leave me be?
Smith
I don’t know.
Hero
Seems like the worth of a Colored man, once he’s made Free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave.
Smith
Is that how come you don’t run off?
Hero
Maybe.  I’m worth something so me running off would be like stealing.
Smith
Seems to me like you got a right to steal yourself.[53]

In imitating the gesture of “Hands up Don’t Shoot,” Hero’s motion links his own ontological uncertainty (will his life have value in a post-slavery world?) to the modern Black Lives Matter protests. Parks maintains that the move developed organically in rehearsals when the actor playing Hero in the premiere, Sterling K. Brown, made this gesture and Parks recognized its resonance immediately, enough for it to subsequently be published as a stage direction.[54]

This recognition certainly transferred to the audience, as was demonstrated in the talkback discussion I attended at the American Repertory Theatre production in 2015. Benton Greene, who played Hero in the ART production, maintained the gesture. “The gestic moment in a sense explains the play,” Diamond asserts, “but it also exceeds the play, opening it to the social and discursive ideologies that inform its production.”[55] Members of the audience remarked that they clearly connected Hero’s gesture to the modern protest movement and certainly felt it made the work resonate in the present moment.[56] Hero’s “hands up” gest directly demonstrates the relationship between his potential plight and the larger, institutional systems that encourage and sustain white hegemony both then and now.

Smith’s vision of Freedom prepares the way for Hero’s one truly heroic act. When the Colonel leaves the stage to scout ahead once more, Hero lets Smith go, to atone, he attests, for a “horrible wrong” he has done, namely his previous betrayal of Homer. Before he leaves, however, Smith gives Hero his own Union Private’s coat, which the latter then puts on under his own Confederate coat. Paula Guerrero reads this as another moment of Hero’s embrasure of whiteness, as “his inherited soldier’s clothes come to substitute his body, as the power they imply eclipses his black skin, making it invisible.”[57] Alternatively, I contend that it is a communal act of subversion, a rehearsal for more radical acts of resistance that the Chorus shall undertake collectively in Part Three.[58] The coat gest transpires after each man has shown the other his brand, his literal mark of sale. It is instead a restorative moment of what Hartman terms a “belonging together,” a collectively enacted performance that might “redress and nurture the broken body,[offering] a small measure of relief from the debasements constitutive of one’s condition.”[59] Hero has gotten where he is with Smith, not alone, and their moment of cooperation is commemorated via a subversive, hidden costume-piece that Hero shall carry with him.

The Union of My Confederate Parts

In the final play, The Union of My Confederate Parts,[60]Parks opposes the collective nature of Freedom with Hero’s tragic lack of recognition of the need for others as he relentlessly clings to his heroic identity, even in the face of its implicit connection to marketplace price in Part Two. Nadine M. Knight writes that throughout the three parts of the play, Parks hews to the line of the original Odyssey inasmuch as “freedom is won through the hero’s self-interest, infidelities and delay and does not apply to others.”[61] Conversely, I suggest that throughout Part Three, Freedom is both sought and potentially earned by the more radical Chorus and the influence they excerpt over Penny and Homer, who ultimately leave with them to steal their own Freedom at the play’s conclusion, leaving Hero behind.

In The Union of My Confederate Parts, Parks returns us to the slave cabin “in the middle of nowhere,” but there are marked changes to both the characters who populate the stage and to the context within which their performance transpires. Most significantly, the Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves have been sold off, we learn, and are replaced onstage by The Runaway Slaves. The word “Chorus” is dropped from their name, and within their own ranks there is no choral leader, merely three equal figures. They are also played by the same actors. These are the first signs of a more radical shift away from the only nascently assertive Chorus in The Measure of a Man. In Part Three their tone becomes more collective and radical, representing what Douglas Jones, Jr. dubs a “shift from black grief to grievance.” Such collective, choral performances were vital, he notes, in the transition from slavery to freedom in order to create a “collectivist (cultural) politics that positioned the group over the individual.”[62] The Runaway Slaves map this transition in Part Three, consistently challenging Hero’s heroic individualism and winning Penny and Homer to their ranks.  Their collective story, and the alliance they forge with Penny and Homer (who ultimately leave with them) forms the spine of Act Three, not Old-Hero’s long-awaited “Return From The Wars” with news not only of the death of the Colonel in the war but also of Lincoln’s far-off signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Runaway Slaves’ time, and by extension they themselves, are no longer commoditized within the measure of the Boss-Master’s workday. The Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves measured how much darkness was left until sunrise and work, but the Runaway Slaves wait for darkness to arrive so that they can run. No time-measuring gestus therefore exists in Part Three. What matters above all else to the Runaway Slaves is Freedom. Freedom from slavery is not the master’s to grant, but can only be attained with others clandestinely, by stealing one’s self. Moten terms this radical stance “fugitivity,” equating blackness itself with a fugitive state, one which represents “a desire for and a spirit of escape and transgression of the proper and the proposed.”[63] Consequently, the Runaway Slaves do not occupy the same physical or ideological space as Hero. In the ART production they constantly lurk in the stage-shadows, and do not focus stage-images around the erstwhile protagonist, as they did in Part One. As the action of Part Three proceeds, they become the new, collective protagonist; their interactions with Hero consistently challenge his gests of heroic return and the mark of marketplace which informs them.

Appearing onstage, Hero remains, despite his encounter with Smith, heroically stuck, unable to relinquish this role and steal himself. Moreover, in choosing his new name, Ulysses, he links himself even more securely to white heroism. The long ramp again affords him his elaborate entrance into Part Three and as soon as he arrives, Ulysses performs a series of homecoming gests for Penny, Homer, and the Runaway Slaves, ones which seem fitting (to him) for a hero who has returned from the war. However, The Runaway Slaves consistently interrupt these performances from the outset, highlighting their staleness as inherited performances, as well as Ulysses’s own lack of awareness about the actual hopes and dreams of the community to which he has returned. He performs the first of these shortly after arriving:

Ulysses kneels on the ground. He gets up. He kneels again.
Ulysses
This is what I seen them do. When they get home. It just follows but it feels right.[64]

This onstage, repeated miming of the heroic return of the soldier, which “they do,” invokes its inherited, white origins (both in the Odyssey and in the Civil War itself): This gest demonstrates Ulysses’s own alienation from himself as well as from the community for which he was supposed to be a hero. His separation from the newly forming onstage community is reinforced by his immediate reaction to the Chorus when they interrupt Ulysses’s homecoming gestures by announcing their presence, emerging from the shadows around the center-stage cabin:

The Runaway Slaves
First:
We’ll be gone by nightfall
Second: In case you’re wondering
Third: We’re good honest people
First: Just like you
Ulysses
We can’t help you but much[65]

Deprived of the Less than Desirable Slaves, for whom he has brought gifts, Ulysses has lost a great portion of the intended audience for his heroic return. “Just like you” implies an equality Ulysses is reluctant to acknowledge. The Chorus splits the lines into their constituent parts, each in turn interrupting Ulysses’s performance. Moreover, “good” and “honest” replace heroic deeds here as merits. Such “ordinary virtues” were part and parcel of the sort of caretaking that went on as bloodlines were continuously broken and remade on antebellum plantations. “Kindness,” remarks Baptist, led slaves to “create families of all sorts, and to care for them, feed them, and teach them.”[66] Far from merely bringing superficial gifts, the Runaway slaves bring fugitivity, this desire for freedom outside the given rules of the stage-world. They are teaching Homer to write, one of great illegalities under slavery, and they will go on to convince Penny to “break the chain” binding her to Ulysses and leave with them.

Ulysses’s oppositional gests continue as he gives Homer his gift, a white alabaster shoe-last[67] to somehow replace his missing foot. Ulysses found the shoe-last in a burnt-out store and he assures Homer that it is expensive:

Ulysses
Homer, this here’s for you
From his satchel, he pulls out a foot, more like a shoe last, made of white alabaster.
Homer
A foot.
The Runaway Slaves
First:
not dark enough
Third: not yet
Second: Not dark enough to jet.[68]

The Runaway Slaves again interrupt, cutting into Ulysses’s gift-giving performance and underlining its absurd shortfall. They in fact repeat to Homer a refrain that was his own earlier in the scene (“it’s not dark enough yet/to jet”), again inciting him to be true to their shared convictions to escape. “It’s not dark enough” becomes a double entendre that cements the collective defiance of Ulysses’s white heroism. Since the alabaster shoe last is “expensive,” Homer is supposed to be happy with the white foot. Ulysses is blind to this disparity, expressing genuine surprise when Homer is not thrilled with this token gesture, clearly meant to assuage Ulysses’s personal guilt. “It’s not dark enough” refers not only to the foot itself, but also to the fading light of the day and its potential for transgression, for fugitivity, one in which Homer himself is becoming keenly invested. The Runaway Slaves, Penny, and Homer are in fact in the midst of forming a collective that is “dark enough” to escape to Freedom; they are giving a value to blackness outside of its marketplace price. They begin to articulate a fugitive culture that is what both Hartman and Jones term oppositional, “a culture [which] resists dominant ideologies, values, and action,”[69] here most specifically an individualism associated with capitalist valuation. “Dark enough/to jet” suggests that blackness may soon become radically black (jet), which will allow the Runaway Slaves (along with Homer and Penny) to steal themselves together.

Ulysses’s desire to be a hero ultimately ensures his own tragic downfall. He cannot escape the equation of the hero with value, and, this idea of value insidiously affects how he sees his fellow slaves, including even Penny. Following his “heroic” gests, Ulysses prepares to read a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation which he has brought with him when he suddenly “decides to discuss another matter instead.” He announces after a Spell and a Rest that he has “brought something home for [himself]” [my emphasis].[70] This “something” is in fact his new wife, Alberta.[71] He explains to Penny that he decided to marry someone else since they could not have children (he assumes it is her issue and is unaware that Penny has in fact become pregnant with Homer’s child in his absence). He even suggests that Penny might stay behind to help Alberta tend the house; the gift he has brought for Penny is, quite bluntly, a gardening spade. This misogynistic, dehumanizing vision of Alberta as a gift, as “something” for himself, specifically a thing that might allow him to sire children, and — together with Penny and her new spade — work his little piece of land, is alarmingly close to the Boss-Master’s own views of slaves as interchangeable property, as marketplace flesh to be bred. Moreover, as Paula Guerrero points out, he even withholds telling the slaves about their own proclaimed freedom to discuss a personal matter.[72] Despite his encounter with Smith and his momentary consideration of the radical stance of “belonging together,” he decides, ultimately, to remain a hero.

As Penny retreats into the tiny cabin, the Runaway Slaves once more intervene. Moving out of the shadows, they come into the full lights of the scene as night begins to fall over the stage and the stage-light turns increasingly blue:

Third: Inside, Penny makes up the marriage bed
And in doing so she takes her place in a long line of the
Wronged
Come out of the house, true wife, true love
Second: Come with us
First: Come with us
Third: Come break the chain
(Rest)
First: I wish it was dark enough
Third: I wish it was dark enough
Second: Dark enough to jet
First, second and third: Not yet
Not yet
Not yet
Not yet.
Homer: It will be soon[73]

It is precisely this “collectivist yearning for liberation” remarks Jones, that directly “fueled black resistance to enslavement”[74] The Chorus implores Penny to break the long chain of inherited wrong and Homer, hearing his own refrain once more, provides a resounding affirmative that it is almost time to do so, ending the choral ode.[75] The messianic future tense of the ultimate line brings the ode into our own time, where it is still not “dark enough” but “will be soon.” We, too, are being asked to imagine a world otherwise. It is Penny, upon returning, who makes the final, resounding choice of the act, permanently rejecting the passive role of the original Penelope: she leaves Ulysses behind to head north with Homer and the Runaway Slaves. Ulysses has come home from the wars, but no audience remains, save his talking dog, for his heroism. Moreover, his first act of Freedom is to bury his former master, who never actually freed him. His plight remains resolutely tragic, and his tragic choice amounts to refusing to renounce his perceived exceptionalism. Yet even Ulysses ultimately retains a trace of this collectivity and the moment he shared with Smith in Part Two: he keeps Smith’s coat. This “truth” is the war-story Ulysses may one day tell his children, the truth of how he came to possess the coat, and it shall perhaps be a story about his one actually heroic act, which involved solidarity with another former slave.[76]

Parks employs a series of strategic, gestic performances across all three parts of Father Comes Home from The Wars: all her characters are marked by the marketplace, and we witness performances that both reinforce that marking but also those which demonstrate collective, performed resistance to it. “The black radical imagination,” Robin Kelley remarks, “is a collective imagination…it is fundamentally a product of struggle, of victories and losses, crises and openings, and endless conversations circulating in a shared environment.”[77] Father Comes Home from The Wars consistently confronts its audience with these crises, but also points towards openings, towards a potential for transcendence: one may, in fact, steal one’s self and run with others, embracing fugitivity and a radical, collective improvisation in the face of the pervasive mark of the marketplace. One may also simply wear another man’s coat to remind one’s self of Freedom and its possibilities. We are forced to consider both choices. Parks’s use of her own, revised Epic form allows for a broad cultural critique about how the mark of the marketplace and its lasting legacies dehumanize all of her characters. If we need heroes to resolve the action, this says a lot about both the past and present state of things. “The heart of the thing won’t change easy or quick,”[78] as Private Smith opines, but Parks provides a space for fugitivity, allowing the audience space within the shared environment of the theatre to question the mark of the marketplace’s enduring legacies, perhaps engendering a radical blackness that is “dark enough” to destabilize them.


Dr. Michael Jaros is Associate Professor of English at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in dramatic literature. His research and publications focus primarily on Irish culture and performance in the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as contemporary American drama. He holds a PhD from The University of California, San Diego.


[1] Several short plays in 365 Days/365 Plays do address the Civil War and its contemporaneity. Suzan-Lori Parks, 365 Days/365 Plays (New York: TCG, 2006). The genesis of Father Comes Home actually began with 365 Days/365 Plays, which features eleven different works with the title “Father Comes Home from the Wars.” Each features a series of fathers returning from various wars. The premiere production of Father Comes Home took place at the Public Theater in New York on 28 October 2014. The design and production personnel then transferred to the American Repertory Theater at Harvard, with a predominantly new cast. This was the production which I saw myself in Feb. 2015. Subsequently, it has been performed at various professional and non-professional venues both in the United States and abroad.

[2] Many scholars have discussed both Lincoln works.  See especially the chapter “Resurrecting Lincoln: The America Play and Topdog/Underdog in Deborah Geis, Suzan Lori Parks (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008): 97-125; Verna Foster, ““Suzan-Lori Park’s Staging of the Lincoln Myth in The America Play and Topdog/Underdog,” Journal of American Drama and Theatre 17, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 24-35. Works that discuss the two plays in tandem tend to focus primarily on the figure of Lincoln as opposed to the broader historical context of which he is a part.

[3] Parks has remarked that the play will have a total of nine parts; the other two sections shall transpire during other wars. Suzan-Lori Parks, “The ART of Human Rights with Suzan-Lori Parks,” American Repertory Theatre, 18 February 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmB3fJRAroo.  Harvard University streamed this talkback session after the play, which I also attended.

[4] Parks, “ART of Human Rights.”

[5] Suzan-Lori Parks, Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1,2 and 3 (New York: TCG, 2015), 98.

[6] Erica R. Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2012), 20-21.

[7] Paula Guerrero, “Reformulating Freedom: Slavery, Alienation and Ambivalence in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),Ex-Centric Narratives: Journal of Anglophone Literature, Culture and Media, no. 2, (2018): 46.

[8] Paul Carter Harrison, “Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars: An Arrested Development,Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 15, no 2 (Fall 2015): 33.

[9] In Part three there are only three choral members and no leader. At least in the Public Theater and American Repertory Theatre productions, in part 3 the fourth choral member instead plays Hero’s talking, cross-eyed dog, Odd-See.

[10] Elin Diamond, “Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Towards a Gestic Feminist Criticism,” TDR 17, no. 1 (Spring  1988): 84.

[11] Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 6.

[12] Edward Baptist, The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 33, 245.

[13] Cailtyn Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 126.

[14] Rosenthal, 135.

[15] Laura Dougherty, “Father Comes Home from the Wars, by Suzan-Lori Parks,” Theatre Journal 67, no. 3 (Oct. 2015): 562.

[16] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 309.

[17] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003), 6.

[18] Moten, In the Break, 21.

[19] Soyica Diggs Colbert, Black Movements. Performance and Cultural Politics (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 2.

[20] Robert Patterson, ““12 Years a What? Slavery, Representation and Black Cultural Politics in 12 Years a Slave, The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture (Rutgers, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 24-25.

[21] Hartman writes: “what are the constituents of agency when one’s social condition is defined by negation and personhood refigured in the fetishized and fungible terms of object or property?” Scenes of Subjection, 52.

[22] Parks, Father Comes Home, 5.

[23] Parks, Father Comes Home, 5. The character names are in bold in the original script.

[24] Diamond, 90.

[25] Harvey Young, “Choral Compassion: In the Blood and Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks: A Casebook, ed. Kevin J Wetmore and Alycia Smith-Howard (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007): 41,44.

[26] Parks, Father Comes Home, 10.

[27] Moten, In the Break, 2.

[28] Parks, Father Comes Home, 11.

[29] Rosenthal 144.

[30] Parks, Father Comes Home, 42.

[31] Parks, Father Comes Home, 34.

[32] Moten, In the Break, 89, 21.

[33] To emphasize its importance, Parks consistently capitalizes Freedom in her text, so I am following that style in this essay.

[34] Parks, Father Comes Home, 47.

[35] Hartman, 69.

[36] Parks, Father Comes Home, 51.

[37] Hartman, 59, 61.

[38] Hartman, 48.

[39] Parks may be referencing the historical battle in fact called the Battle of the Wilderness, which was fought between Union and Confederate forces from 5-7 May 1864, and was inconclusive in its outcome.

[40] Hartman, 37.

[41] Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 211.

[42] Roach, 215.

[43] Diamond 89.  Douglas Jones Jr. also elaborates on this theatre of the marketplace, which he calls the “shared communion in the rites of the slave market – the looking, stripping, touching, bantering and evaluating [in which] white men confirmed their commonality with the other men with whom they inspected the slaves.” Douglas Jones, Jr, “Slavery and the Design of the African-American Theatre,” The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2013), 20.

[44] Parks, Father Comes Home, 67.

[45] Diamond, 90.

[46] This was the same stump upon which Hero’s own foot was almost cut off in Part One of the ART production, to “take the edge off Boss’ Anger” when Hero at least initially decides he shall not go to the war. We can only assume it was also the stump upon which Homer’s own foot was cut off by Hero earlier.

[47] Parks, Father Comes Home, 75.

[48] Hartman, 38. She quotes L.M. Mills, a former slave: “when a negro was put on the block he and to help sell himself by telling what he could do. If he refused to sell himself and acted sullen, he was sure to be stripped and given thirty lashes.”

[49] Parks, Father Comes Home, 79-80.

[50] Parks, “Elements of Style,” 16.

[51] Parks refusal to stage such violence on a larger scale is tactical. “If the scene of the beating readily lends itself to an identification with the enslaved, notes Hartman about Douglas’ description of the beating of Aunt Hester in the Narrative, “it does so at the risk of fixing and naturalizing this condition of pained embodiment,” 20. Parks distances us from the shallow empathy of seeing Hero stripped and beaten in favor of a more complex engagement with the material conditions of slavery. Additionally, Edward Baptist remarks that the slave auction was designed to “destroy the façade of negotiation with the enslaved and established a community of right-handed power,” 98. The Colonel’s brief, violent action helps to shatter this façade.

[52] Parks, Father Comes Home, 80.

[53] Parks, Father Comes Home, 96.

[54] Michelle  Norris, “Suzan-Lori Parks’ New Play, ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars,’” NPR, 5 Dec 2014,  www.npr.org. www.npr.org/2014/12/05/368640540/suzan-lori-parks-new-play-father-comes-home-from-the-wars.  

[55] Diamond, 90.

[56] Parks, “ART of Human Rights.”

[57] Guerrero, 52.

[58] Parks frequently employs such subversions within more monumental versions of white history. Perhaps the most well-known is the blonde beard the Foundling Father introduces into his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in The America Play, as “his fancy.” Parks, The America Play and Other Works (New York: TCG, 1994), 163

[59] Hartman, 61.

[60] The title references Parks union of the varied strands of her play together, specifically the anticipated reunion of Penny and Hero (akin to Penelope and Odysseus/Ulysses in the Odyssey), as well as the reunion of the country at the war’s conclusion.

[61] Nadine M. Knight, “Penelope Gone to the War: The Violence of Home in Neverhome and Father Comes Home from the Wars, New Voices in Classical Reception Studies, no. 11 (2016): 37.

[62] Jones, 25.
[63] Moten, Stolen Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 131.

[64] Parks, Father Comes Home, 141.

[65] Parks, Father Comes Home, 143.

[66] Baptist, 282.

[67] a shoe-last is a foot mold used in making and repairing shoes.

[68] Parks, Father Comes Home, 145.

[69] Jones, 23.

[70] Parks, Father Comes Home, 146-147.

[71] Parks reminded the audience during a talkback at the American Repertory Theatre that Troy, the protagonist of August Wilson’s landmark 1985 play Fences, had a mistress named Alberta. Parks picked the name Alberta as Ulysses’ new wife without immediately realizing what she had done, but quickly ascertained that her own protagonist and his plight were “so woven into the groundwater of [her] personal cultural experience,” that the name and the associations it might call to mind in the audience had to stay. Parks, “The ART of Human Rights.”. Also a victim of historical circumstance, Troy never got to play baseball in the major leagues due to the color line. His own fall echoes Ulysses’s, as a series of choices he makes to play within the system as it is, but also to play selfishly, alienates him from his own family.

[72] Guerrero, 52.

[73] Parks, Father Comes Home, 152.

[74] Jones, 20.

[75] Edward Baptist speaks to the choral power of work-songs to literally save slaves from death by despair. Lucy Thurston remarked eighty years after her enslavement that when she was considering dropping down and dying, when “she could not bring herself to go on living by herself,“  her fellow slaves begin singing to her in a chorus. “I got happy,” she remarked, “and sang with the rest,” 147.

[76] Parks remarked in the talkback that the idea for the play had begun with Hero possessing the two coats. She then wrote backwards to determine how he came by them. “ART of Human Rights.”

[77] Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2002), 150.

[78] Parks, Father Comes Home, 98.

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Table of Contents:

  • “Troubled Collaboration: Belasco, the Fiskes, and the Society Playwright, Mrs. Burton Harrison” by Eileen Curley
  • “Silence, Gesture, and Deaf Identity in Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening by Stephanie Lim
  • “’Ya Got Trouble, My Friend, Right Here’: Romanticizing Grifters in American Musical Theatre” by Dan Venning
  • “Unhappy is the Land that Needs a Hero: The Mark of the Marketplace in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1-3” by Michael P. Jaros

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