NEW YORK — As a musician and an ardent lover of jazz, Suzan-Lori Parks approaches playwriting as if she’s composing a piece of music. In writing “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3),” her historical trilogy set during the Civil War, she was channeling something deep inside her, “following that voice and not asking too many questions.”
“There’s a great quote from Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘To the Lighthouse’ about the painter, Lily Briscoe, that goes something like, ‘She was not inventing. She was only trying to smooth out something folded up that she had been given long ago, something she had seen,’ ” said Parks last month, sitting at the desk in her office at the Public Theater downtown, where she’s the master writer in residence. “The stories of the plays came to me with such clarity that I know that they did happen.”
With “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” what Parks has unfolded is a Homeric epic of three interwoven stories (the initial trio in a planned nine-play cycle) tracing the journey of a slave named Hero, his wife, Penny, and the best friend he betrayed, Homer. Spanning a total of three hours, the plays premiered last fall at the Public Theater to largely rave reviews. Now, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge is mounting the coproduction at the Loeb Drama Center starting Friday and running through March 1, with a mix of new and original cast members.
Over the years, Parks, 51, has learned to trust her instincts. During a reading of the plays last spring, she had a revelation that led her to discard a group of characters, Confederate soldiers, and introduce a new one — Hero’s boss-master, the Colonel. Then three weeks into rehearsals last fall, she awoke, startled, in the middle of the night with an epiphany about a radical new ending for the plays. Instead of Hero committing a brutal act of violence at the end of Part 3, altering the trajectory of several characters, she realized that his fate was more hopeful.
“That’s actually what the spirit wanted me to do — to find a way to free him. By working on the play, we actually were able to liberate one of the characters — in a real way, it actually happened,” said Parks, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2002 for “Topdog/Underdog.”
The trilogy adopts a bold, heightened theatricality, with characters speaking in a poetic and percussive contemporary vernacular. Like a hip-hop artist sampling the influences that have shaped her, Parks includes references and allusions to everything from the Greeks to Shakespeare to “Oklahoma!”
Set in 1862 at a cabin on a slave plantation in rural Texas, Part 1, “A Measure of a Man,” centers on the moral dilemma faced by Hero: whether to go off and fight with the Colonel on the side of the Confederate army, in exchange for a promise of freedom after the war ends, or to stay on the plantation with Penny and his fellow “Less Than Desirable Slaves.”
In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” set at a wooded campsite somewhere between battling Confederate and Union armies, the Colonel and Hero have captured a wounded Union soldier, a white captain named Smith serving with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry.
In Part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” love has blossomed between Homer and Penny back on the plantation in the closing days of the war. Still, Penny refuses to escape with Homer and three runaways they’re harboring, insisting that she must wait for Hero’s return. But Hero’s trusty (talking) canine, Odd-See (Odyssey), emerges from the woods to share news of Hero and the Colonel’s wartime journeys, which leads to a series of fraught confrontations.
Director Jo Bonney says the plays raise thorny questions about betrayal, the nature of love, and the worth of a man. The conflicted Hero remarks that gaining his freedom could have a downside. He’s probably worth $800 as a slave; a free man, he says, is worth nothing.
“There’s a big ideological discussion about freedom that travels through the plays between two of the lead characters,” Bonney says. “Is freedom something that you take? Or is it something that you wait to be given? Both of these individuals want freedom desperately; both of them say they deserve freedom, but have different ways of going about getting freedom. The play is rooted in history, but at so many moments it’s touching on these very contemporary concerns.”
The challenge, Bonney says, was getting the performers to embrace the sometimes tricky tone of the piece, which is rife with contemporary colloquialisms and free-flowing urban slang.
“When the actors first came in, their impulse was to take it all very seriously, because it’s this big subject set in a specific time that has this huge weight and baggage to it,” she says. “So a lot of my work was giving permission to them to realize, no, you can actually have some fun there. You can actually be a little irreverent there, or a little tongue-in-cheek there, or go a little overboard there. Now you can go for your Medea moment there.”
Bonney says that Parks is “dancing on top of the subject in a very clever way” to make it feel fresh.
With expressive brown eyes and braided dreadlocks cascading like tangles of vines down to her waist, Parks is an earthy and animated presence, punctuating her stories with dramatic or playful voices and bursts of laughter. She has a tendency to meander in conversation, like a jazz musician improvising a riff. Above her desk is a framed note from the author James Baldwin, her creative writing professor at Mount Holyoke College.
A self-described “Army brat,” Parks says the plays were first inspired by memories of her father, a lieutenant colonel who did two tours in Vietnam. She and her family, which includes an older sister and a younger brother, moved frequently.
As a kid, Parks was drawn to Shakespeare, Greek and African myths, Russian and Irish fairy tales, and Hindu myths like the Bhagavad Gita. She says she would read them over and over again. So as a writer, she’s always had a tendency to think on an epic scale.
Bonney praises the ambitious scope of the plays, especially in light of the trend toward plays with smaller casts. “It’s so expensive to make theater and so often [it] comes down to budget and resources. But Suzan-Lori had a big story she wanted to tell, something that was epic and historical but at the same time completely contemporary and very personal.”
Jenny Jules, who plays Penny, thinks audiences are hungering for meaty, large-scale narratives like this one, August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” or Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
“At the end of the day, I think we’re all interested in what it is to be human and what it means to be alive,” Jules said. “Philosophers and poets and writers have been mulling these things over for thousands of years. So we’re always looking for the next person who’s bringing out those new scrolls that say something about our existence.”
Parks remains cagey about the stories she’s envisioned for Parts 4 through 9, but she does allow that subsequent plays will jump forward and follow various descendants of the characters from the first three plays. For Parks, it comes down to seeing the ways we are all connected as people. She refers to a question Smith asks the Colonel in Part 2 after hearing nearby cannon fire: “Ours or yours, do you think?”
“Well, the answer is always ‘ours.’ Because we are all in this together,” Parks said. “The whole Us and Them [dynamic] that’s going on these days is where I think so much of the seed of injustice is born. How does your life connect with mine? People believe so strongly that there is a separation, that there is an Us and a Them, but in fact there’s not.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.