With a cast of 15 actors, live music and a three-part story that straddles challenging aspects of both America’s history and its current state, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) presents both challenges and opportunity for unique artistic interpretations for director Niegel Smith, artistic director of New York’s famed Flea Theater.
Michael Mellini: You have some history with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks. What do you find so exciting and singular about her work?
Niegel Smith: Suzan-Lori is one of the fiercest dramatists of the American stage. She is interested in works that could only be created in the theater, so they are filled with dramatic action, really intense characters and excellent metaphors. Her work has been about excavating a history of blackness in America—particularly, how that blackness gets performed and subsumed by historical facts and figures. I was lucky enough to work with Suzan-Lori when I was a fellow at The Public Theater, during which time this play had two workshops and its world-premiere production—so I got to watch as she uncovered the language of the play’s world. She’s attempting to write something on an epic scale that she hasn’t done before.
MM: Can you speak a bit about the unique structure of the play?
NS: It’s a nine-part play, and these are the first three parts Suzan-Lori has written so far. It’s unfair to speak on her behalf, but I think what she’s signaling in the title is, “Get ready,” because this is as big as Star Wars—and possibly more important, you know? I consider each part its own play with a distinct tonal quality. Watching these plays should feel like a full meal. Part 1 has a lot of suspense, Part 2 settles into one spot for a bit of storytelling and Part 3 is a bit of bait and switch: you’ve been watching these characters for a while, and see what they do, and you think, “How dare you!” Part 1 is about very much questioning the worth of a man. We’re on a plantation in far west Texas, where an enslaved man has to decide if he’s going to accept his master’s promise to grant him his freedom after the war if he’s willing to fight for the Confederacy. Together, the plays explore the value of a man, particularly the value of a black man. You know your body has economic value in that you can be sold, but do you have intrinsic value as a human being? What does it mean to be a black man inside this American experiment? This play tackles those questions in a very rigorous way.
MM: Though the play takes place during the Civil War, audiences will likely identify current relevancy in the topics discussed and in the production’s visual representations.
NS: Since the play was first produced at The Public in 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement began, and we as a nation have been in conversation about what to do with monuments of the Confederacy. Costume designer Linda Cho and I spoke about how we have very much inherited the institution of slavery. In the opening image in Part 1, the silhouettes and the fabrics on stage are going to be historical, but the slave’s clothes will be prison orange. When we arrive in Part 3, we have a chorus of runaway slaves, and again, the silhouettes and fabrics are historical, but their clothes will be dyed in elements of the American flag. The hope of the staging is that these runaways show some impulse towards the possibility of what the flag stands for. What is the promise of that flag? Then, the set is a kind of a monument to the Confederate worldview. It’s a big granite space with the stars of the Confederate flag etched in. I want there to be something aesthetically that every audience member at once wrestles with but engages them. There will be a lot in the play that makes people uncomfortable, but I think the story is going to resonate with audiences. It will be useful, engaging and provocative. Again I think what Suzan-Lori is getting at in her work is that these issues are ingrained in us, and are not easily separated into the now and then.
MM: Music is also a major aspect of the production.
NS: In a way, this show is part-concert, part-theater. Suzan-Lori is a musician; she writes blues music and when you invite her to talk at your school or company, she doesn’t talk about her work—she brings her guitar and sings. The script simply calls one character “musician.” It could be anybody. We’ve cast Melody Angel, a local Chicago blues musician. We auditioned a wide gamut of musicians because this is a great music town. She was just electric and captured me. There was something raw and honest in her sound. Looking at the play and knowing Suzan-Lori, I’m like, “Oh, this is her interlocutor, commenting on and deepening the action.” So that will be Melody in our production. She will literally call for scenery, point out the direction of our focus.
MM: Despite the modern aesthetics, did you do conduct a lot of historical research?
NS: This production will give you a wide swath of Africa and exploring the Africans who were enslaved. There will be 12 different enslaved people on stage from different parts of Africa so we’re working with a dialect coach to reflect the different tonalities that may have survived after a generation or two of enslavement. I’m hopeful this production will communicate the complexity and beauty of African traditions. We didn’t all come from the same cultures in Africa. This play says all this stuff–the images, texture, language, music–is the recent past but still lives with us. I think about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee following the end of apartheid and what happened in Germany after World War II. Those opportunities allowed those communities to reflect on what it meant to have your dominant culture be oppressive to whole populations of people. Our country has never gone through that process, the closest thing was the Civil Rights Movement. It’s important for us to engage with art that makes us think and reflect on that.