If offered the opportunity to stab your master in the back, would you?
Odysseus, the protagonist of Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey, certainly would have. When a slave named Hero, however, is faced with the same scenario things aren’t so certain. This is one of the questions that director Martin Damien Wilkins must address at the helm of the Actor’s Express production of Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2, and 3. The Pulitzer Prize-nominated Civil War epic by Suzan-Lori Parks runs May 13 through June 11, and is presented in three parts with two intermissions. The cast also serves as a chorus in this play with music, which is heavily inspired by The Odyssey.
Set in west Texas during the Civil War, the first three parts are the first trio of a nine-part series that Parks is writing that will go through the war in Afghanistan. Part 1 is set on a plantation where the protagonist Hero, his wife Penny, friend Homer, talking dog Odysseus and a chorus of slaves first appear. The Civil War is about to begin, and Hero’s master, the Colonel, has offered him his freedom in exchange for fighting for the Confederacy. When the second part begins, time has passed and the Civil War has taken its toll on the South. Hero and Colonel are in the woods with a Union soldier named Smith, whom they have captured, and it is here where Hero is first introduced to the idea of sovereignty. The play ends back at the plantation in the days following the Emancipation Proclamation where those left on the plantation must figure out what is next for their lives.
Wilkins says that directing this work has been a dream job for him. Freddie Ashley, the artistic director at Actor’s Express, approached the Charlotte native about directing this production over a year ago. The two first met while Ashley worked in the literary office at the Alliance Theatre and Wilkins was completing a director’s observership during the production of Darren Canady’s False Creeds. The two met again years later through the National New Play Network, which granted Wilkins a directorial fellowship. When Ashley approached him about directing the Obie Award-winning play, Wilkins was thrilled.
As much as the play is rooted in history, Wilkins wants people to pay closer attention to how the play resonates now. He believes that the core of the story is about how much we still grapple with the mental enslavement of having a price. With a young ensemble cast, Wilkins aims to show enslaved people as deeply human in their experiences of love and cruelty. He says, “This process has been the culmination of working on a piece that I wanted to work on with group of people I wanted to work with.”
ArtsATL: What has been your approach to directing this big epic production?
Wilkins: Well, I had a year to prepare and I was interested in looking at how closely this play followed The Odyssey. I have a dear friend who was the dramaturg for the Roundhouse Theatre production, and he shared his research with me. I was impressed by how Parks took that epic work and used it as inspiration to create her own work. The Odyssey is in the back of my mind, but she’s also written a piece that has anachronistic allusions to the now. We framed our work on how Ms. Parks is commenting on our current state of affairs.
ArtsATL: The play is set in many places — on a plantation, in a war zone, in a town. Talk to me about how you approached the set.
Wilkins: The thing that I love about Actor’s Express is that the space is completely flexible. In my conversation with our set designer, James Ogden, I told him that I did not want to do a proscenium. I thought it would be fun to do it in an alley configuration, so that the stage runs the full length of the theatre, and there are audience members on both sides. The audiences can watch each other watch the play.
Trees are a big part of the set. There’s something significant about what those trees ultimately come to represent in the very scary history of lynching. This was happening in places that were very pastoral, beautiful and teeming with life.
ArtsATL: How do you balance having the actors portray enslaved people without shucking and jiving?
Wilkins: We’re fortunate that it’s not in Parks’ writing. In the first part of the play, we see the slaves on the plantation in their living quarters, but what she has done is create a sense of community among them. She writes them with a sense of uprightness, so that there’s never a sense that one is lowering one’s head. So, in Part Two when we see the protagonist, Hero, with Colonel [his master], the ways he might be using his position as the Colonel’s best slave might feel more like survival. We want to endow these characters with humanity, and these actors do a brilliant job with that.
ArtsATL: As I was watching rehearsal, I started to notice that there are some things in this play that resonate now. I started thinking of men coming home from prison or the military. How do the scenarios that the characters find themselves in show up today for you?
Wilkins: Some of what you alluded to has been a part of our conversations. When Penny is waiting for Hero, it made me think of when men go on the inside for 10 to 20 years and these women are waiting for them. They are consistently expecting something in the future that holds over their right now. If we think about us as African Americans coming out of slavery, it kept us in a world of expectation. We were always looking ahead to what would be possible if we had freedom, more rights, access to education, better health care, more job opportunities. There’s a way for us to always look forward that keeps us hopeful.
ArtsATL: Do you think there is bondage in always looking ahead?
Wilkins: I do. I think in looking at the strides you’re able to achieve, you have to ask is it giving you permission to move forward? Or, is it just removing a link in a chain? For example, coming out of the Obama administration, we cleared one hurdle, but looking at what that has fraught for us, we’re always having to ask ourselves, what is coming next? In this play, that is always at the forefront. We’re constantly having to continue to fight. There isn’t a mutual exclusivity to freedom. It has to be achieved in totality and looked at in all parts.
ArtsATL: There’s a point in the play where, to modern audiences, it might look like Hero has the opportunity to take his freedom, but he doesn’t. Why do you think he doesn’t take his freedom in the way that we understand freedom?
Wilkins: This is what I love about this play. Hero is the Able to Homer’s Cain, he’s the Jacob to Homer’s Esaul — we respond to that. What’s hard for us to grapple with is not just the physical part of freeing oneself, but also the mental part of freeing oneself. We are watching this black man try to mentally free himself, to understand that his true worth does not lie in his master’s ability to put a price on him, but that it lies in his ability to take control of his own fate. It’s amazing to me to deal with the notion of your freedom being so new that you have to grapple with what it is to actually be free.
ArtsATL: What is freedom to you?
Wilkins: Freedom is the ability to live the best life you want for yourself, whether you believe that’s endowed by God, or solely in your possession. Being queer and the son of preachers, I had to grapple with what it meant to be a black gay man in a world that told me that I was not what I was. The way I started to form my own sense of freedom is by asking, “Can Martin get up and look in the mirror and say I am my own person?” My choices are mine. My faults and mistakes are my own. In every way owning who you are is freedom. I don’t know that I could have directed this work five years ago. This opportunity is what I have dreamed of and it took me getting knocked down to find my way back to my purpose. This is the freest I’ve ever felt in my 37 years of life.
ArtsATL: What do you want audiences to walk away with from the experience of seeing this show?
Wilkins: There’s a beautiful buoyancy we see in these characters in spite of their realities. My hope is that the audience is able to walk away with the sense that even in the face of oppression, there is still a key that we hold to making the best life for ourselves.