Regional Reviews: San Diego
Part One: A Measure of a Man opens with Hero (Wrekless Watson), a well-liked slave in 1862 Texas planning to join his master, a Colonel (Tom Stephenson), as a confederate soldier. He believes that the slave owner will grant him his freedom if he fights with the army officer in battle. Hero's father figure, The Oldest Old Man (Antonio TJ Johnson), encourages him to fight, but his wife Penny (Tamara McMillian) wants him to stay. Conversations with them and another slave, Homer (Cortez L. Johnson), make Hero question whether he should leave and take part in the conflict against The Union. Part Two: A Battle in the Wilderness and Part Three: A Union of My Confederate Parts, in particular, focus on what happens after Hero comes up with a final decision.
Parks' script features the kind of writing that might seem vague and hard to understand on the page. However, onstage, every word is utilized with unique creativity. Her language combines sentences that sound timeless with very modern phrases and slang. This fusion gives the story a 21st century edge without turning it into parody. Wearing primarily current-day attire, Jeanne Reith's costumes fit with the contemporary influenced prose. Parks also knows how to keep audiences constantly off guard. Each segment opens with witty dialogue that helps establish the many characters. By the time San Diegans at the Horton Grand Theatre (possibly Intrepid's last staging at the venue) feel like they know the people onstage, Parks throws in twists and turns that will certainly affect their opinions on certain characters. Her revelations aren't superficial, either. Instead, they tie into her themes of loyalty, the changing of time, and perceptions of race.
Making sure that Parks' poetic voice clicks is co-founder and Producing Artistic Director Christy Yael-Cox. She navigates through the consistent changes in tone from humorously playful to psychologically intense. Emphasizing the changes in mood are co-founder and Artistic Director Sean Yael-Cox's set, and Karin Filijan's lighting. Although the slaves are not portrayed as living miserable existences, the shack that Sean Yael-Cox designed suggests a sense of menace for historically disturbing reasons. Several major plot points happen with the change of day, which is presented evocatively by Filijan. Songs by Parks are also important in the staging. Musician Jim Mooney and ensemble member Leonard Patton perform tunes which beautifully contribute to the 19th century setting. Yael-Cox uses the melodies to comment on situations that happen in the narrative.
Initially acting in a charismatic manner, Watson humorously plays up Hero's charismatic qualities in the first third. Hero's possible decision to fight for slavery may not be noble, but Watson is still a fascinating presence, especially after the protagonist decides whether or not he should go to war. Since the star is gone for long stretches, other performers need to be as well cast as he is. McMillian, Antonio Johnson, Cortez Johnson, Stephenson, and Sean Yael-Cox, as well as Durwood Murray in a hilarious turn as a talking animal, are a few of the supporting players who have a confident handling of Parks' heightened style. Each of them show the various ways that Hero affects their characters' lives.
None of the people Parks created can be described as simple. Horrors and atrocities of slavery are referenced, yet the slaves don't come across as broken victims. They are all smart people who are determined to be in control of their own fates. Much more unlikable is the master of the plantation. That being said, the colonel isn't a stereotypical villain. His flawed and repugnant worldview is revealed in a speech that's unsettling and full of depth.
Yael-Cox and Parks leave theatregoers wanting more from the War of the Rebellion cycle, while still providing a richly rewarding dramatic event. Don't be overwhelmed by the nearly three-hour running time. There isn't a wasted moment in the entire evening.
Intrepid Theatre Company presents Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) through October 22, 2017. Performances Sunday through Saturday at 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA. Tickets start at $29.00 and can be purchased online at www.intrepidtheatre.org or by phone at 1-888-71-TICKETS(4253).