An American Odyssey

Quintessence Theatre Group presents Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars

4 minute read
In Civil War era costumes, the cast poses onstage looking gravely to the right, each raising their right hand, palm outward.
From left: Jordan Fidalgo, Deja Anderson-Ross, Steven Anthony Wright, Eric Carter, Ivana R. Thompson, Kelechi Udenkwo, and Monroe Barrick in ‘Father Comes Home From the Wars’ at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

Suzan-Lori Parks doesn’t lack ambition, and neither does Quintessence Theatre Group, which concludes its 14th season with her Father Comes Home From the Wars: Parts I, II & III. Any production of this large-cast work from 2014 requires an undertaking of epic proportions: in three connected plays that unfold across three-plus hours, Parks fuses the full weight of American history with the stylized splendor of Classical storytelling.

Throughout her career, Parks (Topdog/Underdog, The America Play) has long been fascinated by the Civil War, with particular focus on its legacy as refracted through the lens of Black Americans with roots dating back to formerly enslaved people. Father Comes Home From the Wars, a Pulitzer finalist the year after its premiere, is easily her most monumental traversal of the subject yet: she envisioned the total work as a nine-play cycle, though other entries have yet to materialize.

But this staging by director Raelle Myrick-Hodges only intermittently reaches the grandiose heights required by the text. Like the central character of Parks’s saga—a Black Texan who follows his enslaver to the battlefield in 1862, on the promise of freedom for service to a cause he despises—the production often finds itself caught in a liminal space, either too small-scale and granular to capture completely the work’s poetry, or pitched high without the appropriate emotional underpinning.

Creating three worlds

As befitting a dramatic cycle, Parks crafts a discrete world in each of the play’s three acts. The first, A Measure of a Man, chronicles the struggle faced by Hero (Kelechi Udenkwo) as he chooses whether or not to don the Confederate uniform. Leaving the plantation would mean the potential for liberation, but it would also put miles between him and his beloved wife, Penny (Deja Anderson-Ross). As he weighs his escape, the audience also learns of Hero’s past unheroic deeds—chiefly, that he aided in the capture of another enslaved man, Homer (Eric Carter), who attempted escape years before. As the names keenly suggest, Parks reaches to The Odyssey for much of her framing.

In A Battle in the Wilderness, Hero finds himself caught in a dialogue between A Colonel (Peter Bisgaier), his enslaver, and a Union captain named Smith (Donovan Whitney), who was captured after being wounded. Both men speak of freedom, but in different terms. The final act, The Union of My Confederate Parts, brings Hero back home to a world that has irrevocably changed. He bears a new name, Ulysses—a double metaphor, as it represents both the commander of the Union forces and the Romanization of Homer’s Odysseus.

Missed opportunities

Although the plays remain gripping throughout, right up until the somewhat messy denouement of The Union of My Confederate Parts, missed opportunities present themselves in the direction, design, and performance styles on display. The expansiveness of the material feels hemmed in by set designer Meghan Jones’s tight, mostly presentational staging area. Since Quintessence uses the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy, which now functions essentially as a raw, malleable space, I couldn’t help but wish for a less traditional choice for the action. Greek tragedies often eschew standard mores in favor of the creative use of language and movement; that would have been a useful template here.

Anderson-Ross, in a floral blouse, puts a hand on her chest. Carter, behind, weeps on her shoulder, wrapping arms around her
Deja Anderson-Ross and Eric Carter in ‘Father Comes Home From the Wars’ at Quintessence. (Photo by Linda Johnson.)

A Measure of a Man demands the most extreme emotional swings in the acting, as well as the most precise choral language, and neither is fully realized. An onstage chorus composed of Steven Wright, Jordan Fidalgo, and Ivana R. Thompson only occasionally made their voices join in perfect unison. Although Anderson-Ross and Monroe Barrick (as The Oldest Old Man, a surrogate father for Hero) found the right plangent tone in their performances, neither Udenkwo nor Carter fully grasped the weight of their characters and the fraught relationship between them.

Hero/Ulysses stands as the guiding force throughout the three plays, a figure both honorable and misguided, understandable and infuriating. Udenkwo’s inchoate interpretation rarely touches on the full complexity of the role. Although he is perhaps a bit advanced for the part now, his co-star Wright, a Quintessence regular, seems like he would be a better fit here—especially once he returns, in the final act, as an anthropomorphized dog, Odyssey, who functions as the Greek Messenger archetype.

Soundscapes and spotlights

Music factors heavily into Parks’s work—she wrote the myriad songs that serve as extra-narrative comment throughout the play—but Michael Kiley’s arrangements don’t always serve their purpose in the story to the best degree. The soundscapes he furnishes throughout are typically more satisfying. And although Isabella Gill’s lighting design sometimes strikes the right tone—especially in A Battle in the Wilderness, where it captures the feeling of displacement experienced by the characters—it is at other times surprisingly rudimentary, especially when attempting to spotlight individual bodies onstage within a scene.

Shakespeare, Shaw, and Parks

In recent years, Quintessence has admirably pushed its mission as a Classical theater to include worthwhile contemporary works such as this. It’s great to see Suzan-Lori Parks share space on a season that also included Shakespeare and Shaw. Let’s hope this trend continues, and that future productions of these thorny modern plays more harmoniously find their center of gravity, even amid the messy moral and philosophical questions asked by the authors.

What, When, Where

Father Comes Home from the Wars: Parts I, II & III. By Suzan-Lori Parks. Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges. $15-60. Quintessence Theatre Group. Through June 23, 2024, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or


The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There is an accessible, all-gender bathroom located in the lobby of the theater.

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