Jo Bonney Directs an Intimate Epic, a Contemporary History
Historical and contemporary. Dramatic and vaudevillian. A big show and a personal story. The words Jo Bonney uses to describe Father Comes Home From The Wars by Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks are full of contradictions. As is the production itself—and with good reason—said Bonney, who is directing the show’s run at the Mark Taper Forum through May 15, 2016 and also helmed the world premiere at the Public Theater in 2014.
Set on a plantation in West Texas and a Civil War battlefield from 1862–1863, Father Comes Home From The Wars “is a conversation about the past, the present, and the future, as any great epic story is. But its focus on the individual characters makes it very intimate,” said Bonney.
The play follows a slave named Hero who must decide whether to follow his master to war and possibly earn his freedom—while fighting for a cause he does not believe in. Father Comes Home From The Wars draws inspiration from many different epics, including The Mahabharata and The Odyssey, and Parks envisions it as a nine-part epic. Later pieces will follow the characters and their descendants. These first three parts make for a big play, with a dozen actors on the stage (including a “Chorus of Less Than Desirable Slaves” and a very funny dog named Odd-See) and live music, written and composed by Parks.
“It does the piece a disservice to talk about it simply as being a play about slavery,” said Bonney. “Within the bigger toxic context of slavery, the focus is really on the individuality of these men and women and their very different ideas on the idea of freedom. It asks the question, what does freedom mean to people? Then and now?”
It is a personal story for Parks herself, who was named a finalist for the 2015–2016 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize playwriting award for this show. “This piece is very close to Suzan-Lori’s heart because her father was in the military,” said Bonney, and the play is set in West Texas, where her mother grew up. Father Comes Home From The Wars is “something that she’s wanted to write for a long time.”
Parks brings to this story a mix of “formal language with very colloquial language, the past and the present,” said Bonney. “I decided the look and feel of the production should also have that juxtaposition.” The set mixes period elements—what Bonney called “an iconic slave shack”—with modern elements, like bare soil and a metal ramp for entrances and exits. The costumes reflect the same mix, with characters wearing modern sneakers with a period skirt or a contemporary beanie with period pants.
Current events, particularly the killings of young, unarmed black men across America, have made the echoes of the piece and the antebellum era reverberate even louder for audiences. “It’s a continuum,” said Bonney. “And the baggage of that period is still being carried today.”