Epic Trilogy of Black Emancipation
by Suzan-Lori Parks
directed by Jo Bonney
In the week the National Museum of African American History & Culture finally opened its doors in Washington, DC, Suzan-Lori Parks' monumental trilogy about black freedom in the American Civil War is playing to British audiences for the first time. Epic in every sense including length, the three-plays-in-one combine grandiose, almost Homeric poetry with domestic comedy and folksy music threaded throughout, composed by Parks too and performed beautifully by Steven Bargonetti. American director Jo Bonney gets the best out of a superb British cast headed by the play's transfixing hero, a slave called Hero, acted by the physically huge and hugely sensitive Steve Toussaint. The pace could be quicker at times, but the massive significance of the history being played out requires the drama to proceed at a slow, ponderous speed to allow the audience time to think. Suzan-Lori Parks was the first African American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize (for Topdog/Underdog in 2002), and this play, which premiered at New York's Public Theater in 2014, was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015.
Neil Patel's set impressively conjures up a slave hut on a rocky plantation somewhere in the deep South. Part 1 deals with the horrific conundrum presented to Hero by his 'boss-master', although we don't actually see the slave-owner until Part 2: in return for his freedom, will Hero come and fight for the pro-slavery South against the Yankees? As if that moral catch-22 weren't enough to take in, Parks mixes things up a bit by giving us a back story about Hero's less-than-honourable past, which turns him from hero to zero in seconds. Added to that, it's unlikely the master will be true to his word. Luckily, the excellent Nadine Marshall as Hero's caring and funny girlfriend Penny is on hand with group of fellow slaves to help him think through his dilemma. Their lines are spoken in heightened blank verse at times, and it's no coincidence there's a character called Homer (Jimmy Akingbola) as the epic themes turn Hero's simple choice into an odyssey.
In Part 2, John Stahl skilfully gives us about as loathsome a personification of a slave-owner as you can imagine, all menacing sibilant 's' sounds and liable to resort to violence at the least provocation. Interestingly, he's so full of self-pity at the prospect of losing the war and therefore also his prize collection of slaves that he cries like a baby at one point. Worryingly, he makes it clear that whatever the outcome of the war, whites will always be the superior race. Racists like him will take more than this one war to eradicate, and Martin Luther King is still a long century away. The clash of ideologies we see acted out between Stahl's Colonel and his captured Yankee soldier (Tom Bateman) has a significance in time and place way beyond the scrap of dusty ground they occupy for a few minutes in the early 1860s in this drama.
Part 3 is hilarious, with a talking dog played with wonderful over-excitement by Dex Lee. Called 'Odyssey Dog' - pronounced 'Odd-See' by the cast - he's like a witty substitute for a chorus you might find in a Greek tragedy, filling in the characters and audience with key points of the narrative. He adds a delightful fairytale or even panto feel to the seriousness of proceedings. A potential domestic tragedy between Hero, Penny and Homer then takes centre stage and Hero once again, for various reasons, becomes a bit of an anti-hero. With its unexpected twists and turns, this epic trilogy requires three hours of your time, and a late journey home, but it's worth it.
photos | ©Tristam Kenton