Photos by Christopher Barteleski

Actors’ Express is presenting Suzan-Lori Parks’ epic poetic drama “Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” directed by Martin Damien Wilkins, running through June 11. Ms. Parks won a Pulitzer in 2002 for her first Broadway play called “Topdog/Underdog” and is a MacArthur “Genius” award recipient.

The current work had a run in 2014 at New York’s famed Public Theater, where legendary shows from “Hair” to “A Chorus Line” and countless others began their lives.

“Father Comes Home From the Wars” is an enormously ambitious play with a running time of just over three hours, including two intermissions. It asks a lot of an audience, perhaps too much, in terms of time, energy, and focused attention. But the rewards it gives back can be tremendous, transformational, and uplifting. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

The setting is the Civil War, Texas, 1862, and Part 1 is called “A Measure of a Man.” Hero (Evan Cleaver), a slave, has a decision to make: Will he agree to follow his master off to war to fight for the Confederacy in return for his freedom? There’s a group called “The Chorus of Less than Desirable Slaves” (Seun Soyemi, Damian Lockhart, Meagan Dilworth, Jason-Jamal Ligon) who are taking bets, as it were. And there is the Oldest Old Man, played by Rob Cleveland.

The playwright has chosen a template to help tell her story: Homer’s “The Odyssey,” the epic poem you read in school about a Greek warrior’s journey home after a long conflict. But Ms. Parks does not get bogged down in the mythology; she’s just doing a bit of riffing to add resonance to the piece.

There is also Penny, Hero’s wife, extremely well-played by Brittany Inge, and Homer (Marcus Hopkins-Turner), a recaptured fellow slave who tried to escape. Mr. Hopkins-Turner is superb; and I’m not going to reveal the ramifications of his presence or the poignance of Penny’s plight.

Artistic Director Freddie Ashley comments that Parts 1 and 3 are verse and Part 2 is prose. But such is the verbal talent of Ms. Parks that I couldn’t tell the difference. It’s like Tennessee Williams at his best, where the writing is magically lifted to the level of poetry, and you don’t notice. You just realize that you’re floating on a cloud of easy eloquence—mesmerizing.

How to describe Part 2? Let’s just say the playwright ups the ante dramatically, and the audience is on the edge of its seat. Called “A Battle in the Wilderness,” Hero and his master, a Colonel in the Rebel Army (Bryan Davis) find themselves in the middle of nowhere with a captured Union soldier named Smith, compellingly played by Richard McDonald, making his Express debut. Smith, whom they’ve put in a cage, argues with the Colonel about slavery and the worth of a man. Smith is not intimidated by the Colonel and tells him what he thinks. The Colonel is not used to this.

Bryan Davis is becoming the Express’ go-to guy for formidable, despicable characters (Did you see “The Crucible”?). Just as he’s proclaiming his loyalty and affection for Hero, he commits an act of violence that almost shocked me out of my seat—and he says he’s so glad “God made me white.”

This statement reminded me of a brilliant lecture that James Baldwin gave at Cambridge University in 1965. Concerning many Southern white men, Baldwin says, “They’re raised to believe that no matter how terrible their lives may be, no matter how far they fall, no matter what disaster overtakes them, they have one enormous consolation, like a heavenly revelation: At least they’re not black.” Baldwin said this exactly 100 years after the Civil War. Sadly, human progress is often painfully slow.

Part 3 of the play is called “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” and it is here that Ms. Parks boldly challenges any preconceptions the audience may have about war, the meaning of slavery, and any character she has created. We meet Odyssey Dog (Jason-Jamal Ligon), devoted to Ulysses (as Hero is now sometimes called); he announces that Hero is alive and coming home (and we’re not sure he’s ever going to get to the point).

To me this “talking dog” reminds one strongly of the berdache, the “two spirit” third gender being common to some Native American tribes, whose sexual and spiritual individuality is often a mystery. Sometimes the berdache is a shaman and healer. However you view Odyssey Dog, Mr. Ligon’s performance is fascinating and other-worldly and eminently watchable. Kudos here to Mr. Wilkins’ direction in allowing his actors freedom and creativity in a play that, in the wrong hands, could fall apart.

As for Hero/Ulysses, he may hold a piece of paper in his hands—the Emancipation Proclamation—but he discovers that total freedom is a complex thing, presenting entirely new decisions to be made about love, loyalty, and personal identity.

As for Evan Cleaver, around whose Hero the play revolves, he delivers a performance that is multifaceted and often charismatic; and he is handsome, as a “Hero” ought to be. I can only attribute opening night nerves to his far too rapid and often unintelligible speech at the very beginning. But he very soon settled into the demanding role and made Hero both memorable and moving.

There’s no denying that playwright Parks is an extraordinary talent; nevertheless, the evening gets a bit long. But when “Father Comes Home From the Wars” is cooking, which it does most of the time, you can’t look away.

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