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Suzan-Lori Parks' New Play, 'Father Comes Home From The Wars'


Suzan-Lori Parks is at it again. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is finishing a run of her latest plays at The Public Theater in New York. "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" start a series of nine plays about America from the Civil War up to the present. The first three revolve around the character Hero, a slave who gets promised his freedom if he helps his master fight for the Confederacy. NPR special correspondent Michele Norris recently caught a performance of this play and spoke with Parks. Their conversation, we should warn you, contains some offensive language. And it begins as Parks explains how contemporary this material feels.

SUZAN-LORI PARKS: The wonderful thing about "Father Comes Home" is that it takes place in the 1860s. And at the same time, it's about things that are happening today. And, you know, to paraphrase William Faulkner the writer, history is not was; history is is - something he said - wrote something like that very brilliantly. The same things that went on, you know, several hundred years ago are happening again. And I think what I really appreciate about the play and the audience that comes to the play is we all are recognizing that this play is giving people an opportunity to reflect. It doesn't say what should or shouldn't happen. It just gives people an opportunity to reflect about the world we all live in.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: This play is very much about possibility and, in one sense, the possibility of freedom.


NORRIS: And what it means and what will it feel like an smell like. And the slave played by Sterling K. Brown, a slave called Hero, is talking to a Union soldier about what freedom might feel like.

PARKS: Right.

NORRIS: He fears freedom. He doesn't fully understand what his value as a man might be if he's a free man. Let's listen.


LOUIS CANCELMI: (As Smith) There's more to freedom than I can explain. But believe me; it's like living in glory.

STERLING K BROWN: (As Hero) Who will I belong to?

CANCELMI: (As Smith) You'll belong to yourself.

BROWN: (As Hero) So when a patrolman comes up to me - and when I'm walking down the road to work or what have you, and a patrolman comes up to me and says, whose nigger are you, nigger, I'm going to say I belong to myself? Today, I can say I belong to the Colonel. I belong to the Colonel, I says now. That's how come they don't beat me. But when freedom comes, and they stop me and ask, and I say I'm my own - I'm on my own, and I own my own self - you think they'll leave me be?

CANCELMI: (As Smith) I don't know.

PARKS: (Laughter).

NORRIS: He talks about when a patroller, meaning...


NORRIS: Meaning someone who might be hunting for slaves, what people in the audience probably hear is, when a patrol man comes up to me.

PARKS: Yes, yes. And also, they hear that because Sterling, the actor, raises his hands - hands up - when he's wondering if he says to somebody - when somebody says, who do you belong to? He says, I belong to myself. He holds his hands up in the air, much like Michael Brown did. And he wonders if that will be enough so that the patrollers will leave him alone. And Smith, the gentleman he's talking to, says, I don't know. Yeah... I wrote these plays long before the current events we are discussing happened. It wasn't like I was commenting on these events. That's the kind of distressing thing about these events. They continue to happen.

NORRIS: Was that always part of the stage direction, or did he do that on his own?

PARKS: No, he found that on his own. It was very much in the day-to-day conversations of everybody. And Sterling, reading it one day, just raised his hands. And I just gasped. I thought, (gasping) oh, dear.

NORRIS: And we should say, it's also very funny.

PARKS: Yes, of course - yeah, well, that's the other thing. People say, oh, no, it's a serious play. It's a very funny play. There are lows and, you know, heavy, deep moments. And there are moments of just sidesplitting, thigh-slapping, good old time laughter in the play because I love a good joke. And yeah, people ask me which character do I relate to the most. It's the dog character, who's, you know, kind of funny. (Laughter).

NORRIS: I love the dog...

PARKS: He's really funny.

NORRIS: I loved the dog.

PARKS: He's really funny.

NORRIS: There's a talking dog in this play.

PARKS: Yeah, there's a talking dog in the play. I mean, you know, that's African-American magic realism right there. (Laughter).

NORRIS: You seem to provide relief for people at the moment that they need it and pathos when they don't expect it. And I'm curious about how you find that rhythm? And I want to play a particular scene where the Colonel is talking about how sad he will be if he no longer has his slaves. But he starts from this sort of comic place of weepiness. But then, it gets really deep really fast. Let's listen.



KEN MARKS: (As the Colonel) I am grateful every day that God made me white.


MARKS: (As the Colonel) I'm so white, I stand on the summit and all the other colors reside beneath me and below. For me, no matter how much money I got (sniffling) or don't got, if my farm's failing or my horse is dead and my woman is sour, my child has passed on, at least I can rest in the grace that God made me white.

NORRIS: Suzan-Lori, why do people laugh at that first line?

PARKS: (Laughter). Well, the Colonel, he's just actually had a real moment of deep sadness about feeling what it would feel like to lose his prized possession, his favorite slave, how he will feel as if his good life has left him. And the only way out of that moment of deep sadness, where he's hit the bottom, is to hold on to the only thing he feels like he's really got. And that is his whiteness. And I think people laugh - (laughter) - I mean, I don't know why people laugh. I laugh, other people laugh because I know what it's like to hold onto something when you feel like you're lost. And I ask myself - (laughter) - there he is, holding on to something (laughter). And I hold on to things too. And we realize how necessary it is to grab onto something like that and actually, at the same time, how ludicrous it is and how damaging it is.

NORRIS: This has been wonderful. Susan-Lori Parks, thank you so much.

PARKS: Oh, likewise, Michele. I really appreciate it.

INSKEEP: Susan-Lori Parks, speaking with NPR's Michele Norris. "Father Comes Home From The Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" closes in New York's Public Theater this weekend and opens in Cambridge, Massachusetts next month. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.