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"True dat," responds a trio of runaway slaves to a series of statements about the debilitating conditions endured by Civil War-era blacks in Suzan-Lori Parks' "Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," at the American Conservatory Theater through May 20. "True dat," they repeat. "True dat."
The audience recognizes - perhaps consciously, perhaps not - Parks' juxtaposition of her play's 1860s setting with a vernacular expression that arose in African-American communities during the 1990s and remains common today. In this and other instances, Parks uses vocabulary to subtly elide past and present. The perverse moral relativism and psychological degradation institutionalized during the US' first century do not belong to the long ago and far away, she implies. "Father Comes Home" is a history play only if one believes in living history.
Over the course of the play, audiences are forced to recognize the searing brand of slavery on American society: in the Confederate colonel whose sense of self-worth is dependent on seeing other people as beneath him; in the ironically monikered slave Hero, whose agrees to go into battle for the South, and who wonders if he'll lose his value as a person if freedom means the evaporation of his $800 price-tag.
Parks is correcting any assumption that the Emancipation Proclamation put a hard stop to slavery's effects. She is working to straighten our skewed historical record, to set it true. When she writes "True dat," true is not just an adjective; it's an action verb.
Recognizing that Parks brings such fierce intelligence and nuance to virtually every moment of her script's nearly three-hour running time is jaw-dropping. Knowing that these tightly crafted acts are just the first third of an eventual nine-part epic is enough to make your head spin.
In all fairness, some audience members will find it too dizzying to enjoy. The intricacy of Parks' concept and language requires a level of sustained attention not often demanded of contemporary theatergoers. But director Liz Diamond and company do an excellent job of bringing their script to life without turning any of the playwright's provocations into ham-handed messages. Riccardo Hernandez's spare scenic design and Yi Zhao's lighting respect the primacy of the language, quietly indicating shifts in landscape and in time without distracting from the dialogue.
Part I, in which Hero (James Udom) decides to leave friends and family to join his master on the battlefield, is the muddiest portion of this production. Too many characters are introduced too quickly, with insufficient differentiation. One begins to puzzle over the cast rather than parse the dialogue.
Part II is the most straightforward of the three, with just a trio of characters on stage: Hero, the Colonel (a wonderful sad-clown performance by Dan Hiatt) and a captive Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) with secrets to reveal. This mid-section does the clearest job of crystallizing Parks' ideas and could easily be performed as a stand-alone one-act.
The production grows continually stronger, and by Part III, which tips into magic realism with Gregory Wallace's dreadlock-swinging tour de force performance as a talking dog, audiences will find themselves laughing aloud with the full cast of 11 and eagerly submitting as Parks ties them into an intellectual Gordian knot.
"Father Comes Home from the Wars" is in no way an escapist entertainment. It richly rewards close engagement. Parks makes repeated nods to Homer's "Odyssey." That's fine company indeed. But with her multifold meanings, sly humor and gift for transforming historical events into timeless meditations, the writer Parks most closely approaches is Shakespeare.
"Father Comes Home from the Wars" plays A.C.T.'s Geary Theater through May 20.