Freedom, Assistant Directing, and Father Comes Home From the Wars
Suzan-Lori Parks has referred to Father Comes Home From the Wars as “a big, sprawling, historic thing.” That’s probably an easier way to put it than trying to describe what the thing actually is – nine separate hour-long plays, or three trilogies (a trilogy of trilogies?), spanning from the Civil War to the present and tracking two separate lineages of black Americans. “A big, sprawling historic thing” sounds about right.
I recently saw the first set, which covers 1861-1863 and is up at the Public through December 7, then met with the show’s Assistant Director (and close friend) Molly Murphy to talk about it. Molly is a director and writer herself, and hails from Texas, where this first trilogy is set. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
KEVIN: So how did this show come onto your radar and how did you get involved with it?
MOLLY: Through Suzan-Lori. I interviewed for Jo (Bonney, director) like May 2013, and then I worked on the lab this March, and then moved to the production.
KEVIN: And how do you know Suzan-Lori?
MOLLY: I met her in like 2010, I was a cameraman for the livestream project at Arena Stages, it was livesteaming a talk she had for the New Black Fest. It was a talk between her and Lynn Nottage, and she came up to me and was like, “Can you come stream Watch Me Work tomorrow?” And I had a restaurant job and I called in sick and I went to stream this thing.
KEVIN: So then you guys did the workshop in, what was it, January of this year?
KEVIN: And that was the first time it had been up in any form?
MOLLY: No, they did a Public lab of it in 2009.
KEVIN: Oh wow.
MOLLY: Yeah, so five years ago.
KEVIN: And so she’s been developing it just on the page between 2009 and now?
MOLLY: Yes. The Part Three that you saw was Part One in 2009. So it used to begin with him coming home from the war.
KEVIN: Is that where the title comes from? Kind of a vestigial thing from — ?
KEVIN: I was curious what the title means to you. Why it’s called Father Comes Home from the Wars?
MOLLY: Because he’s not a father yet, right?
MOLLY: Because he becomes one. Suzan-Lori says sometimes that (the broader cycle) is about two lineages, like the tree of Hero and the tree of Homer.
KEVIN: There were so many things in this show that I want to talk about. The thing that kept coming up for me over and over that was like, I have never heard this articulated, I am so blown away by this, was the complexity of freedom for the recipient of freedom. And I feel like we’ve seen a lot of what a big deal it was to grant freedom, but I’ve never seen such a messy, rough, nuanced depiction of what the experience is like to transition to being given freedom.
KEVIN: And the one line I was going to ask you about, was there was this part where – I think it was in regards to Penny and her choosing for the moment to not run away with the other slaves – the chorus echoed this thing, they were saying, “Not yet, not yet, not yet.” And that was kind of the moment where it hit for me that’s what all these threads have been tying together. And I was just curious, between Jo and Suzan-Lori, did that come up in the room at all in terms of what was being excavated in the play?
MOLLY: Oskar (Eustis) would talk a lot about freedom. And it’s depicted in so many ways all over the play. Like I really love the Boss Master, Hero, and the dog, this sort of line of master and slave, you know? It’s so complicated, the dog stays by Hero, and he shouldn’t. And Hero stays by the Master, and he shouldn’t.
MOLLY: I mean I’m always sort of really bowled over by (Hero’s line) “What will we be worth when freedom comes? What price will we fetch then?” Smith says, “You won’t have a price.” And Hero says, “Well what’s the beauty in not being worth anything?”
KEVIN: Yeah. And there’s that great line when Hero’s asked why he never ran away, that because he has worth he felt like he’d be stealing.
MOLLY: Yeah. And then Smith says, “Seems to me like you have a right to steal yourself.” And Hero says maybe, maybe not. And sort of defiantly. Do you? What is your worth? What does belonging to yourself mean?
MOLLY: Some people have said that they think the dog is the freest person in the play, which I think’s interesting. And I don’t know if I agree with it, but I love that that’s what people talk about.
KEVIN: Was the inclusion of the musician in the script, or was that Jo?
MOLLY: Those are all Suzan-Lori’s songs, and she used to play them herself. In 2009 she sat on stage and she played and sang the songs.
KEVIN: Was Jo on this in 2009?
MOLLY: Yeah. So the music’s always been really ingrained in it.
KEVIN: For me, the epic scale of this show started to sink in in the third play, because the first play sort of feels like that, but then the second play is such narrow focus. And you always expect the middle one to be where it like opens up to a sprawling journey, but then it just goes micro on you, in a way that really caught me off-guard.
MOLLY: I love that second one. I love that Colonel.
KEVIN: Oh he’s so good.
MOLLY: I mean I don’t know what happened when you saw it, but my favorite thing that happens sometimes is when he finishes that speech that is just like, “I’m grateful every day that god made me white.” And he just goes, “Let’s put the plume away.” (Referring to a ridiculously giant plume he’s had affixed to his Colonel’s cap)
KEVIN: And it gets the biggest laugh in the whole show.
MOLLY: That’s another speech that I think is really brilliant because it’s a timeless speech. And Suzan-Lori sometimes, when she’s trying to explain it to people, she’s like, “People think like this still.” And I do sometimes. Like if I get really down, sometimes I’ll be like, well at least I have a career. I have a career and no one can take that away from me. And this is just the Colonel’s version of that. And you know, you can feel real bad about your life, but sometimes you’re like, well, I live in America.
KEVIN: Doing ok.
MOLLY: People have it much harder than me, I’m grateful.
KEVIN: Yeah. It feels – refreshing isn’t the right word – it feels awe-inspiring to hear that kind of language in a play. I feel like it’s, maybe the plays that I see, or maybe just the stuff that gets done right now, accessing something so big like that feels like a treat. I feel like there’s a lot of good work right now that’s zooming in on stuff, the little details, that’s also really beautiful. But to go as zoomed out as that is something she does so well.
MOLLY: I know, right? Like how?
KEVIN: So I want to talk about you in the room.
KEVIN: Starting with Jo I guess. Had you AD’d for her before?
KEVIN: I feel like she has a reputation for having a particular specialty for gritty work, masculine work, physical work. Did you see that at all in the room, or did you notice her particularly expert in certain aspects of directing?
MOLLY: I think the thing I most, like that I want to make sure I learn how to do, is she’s almost not emotional at all in the room. She’s so professional, and you’ll never see her riled. I don’t know if I have a good answer to your question. But she’s not a pushover. She gets what she wants, but the process of working on the show was unbelievably pleasant. Like you imagine with something new and huge that it would just be the messiest thing, but it wasn’t. Everyone was really lovely to each other, and happy to be there, and I think that’s a testament to the way she leads a room.
KEVIN: Is it kind of that invisible hand you’ll hear about great directors? They’re doing a ton of work to steer everybody but you never really feel it?
MOLLY: I guess so. She’s also very empowering to everyone. And Jo just assumes everything’s taken care of. And because of that, it is.
KEVIN: Like expects excellence.
MOLLY: Yeah. She just assumes that you’re doing a wonderful job, and you’re going to do all your stuff. And because of that, you’re ready to deliver it, you know? It’s like everyone feels really called to action, but because they feel worthy and respected in the room. It’s a big management lesson.
KEVIN: I think I emailed you this, but the show hit me in the bones. That was the only way I could describe it. Like we could have this cerebral stuff all day and that’s – there’s tons of that too – but it’s such guts. That’s how I felt about Topdog and — You know what I just read that I’d never read was The America Play. (another Suzan-Lori Parks play)
MOLLY: I’ve never read that either.
KEVIN: She does so much with Lincoln and with this period, even when it’s not set in this period. This is a thing she comes back to.
MOLLY: The thing she’ll always say about Lincoln is that he has the best costume she’s ever seen. That’s all she’ll say about it.
KEVIN: That’s what The America Play is, is a guy who wears a Lincoln costume! He’s a reenactor.
KEVIN: What kind of stuff were you doing in the room? And how were you working with Jo?
MOLLY: Well I sort of worked for both Jo and Suzan-Lori. I was doing a lot of script managing support. And with Jo, the challenge of that show is the thrust nature of it. Honestly I really sometimes think the role of the AD is to just listen, you know? It’s sitting after and listening to them hash it out.
KEVIN: And it sounds like you gleaned a lot of stuff for your own career and craft.
MOLLY: Oh totally. I mean to watch her work, to watch them both work on the play — I mean it’s always a messy soup. Like should we do this or should we do that. It sort of inspires you to like —
MOLLY: Like this is hard for them.
KEVIN: Kind of peering behind the curtain a bit.
MOLLY: Yeah, I mean I think good AD’ing is like that. One hopes. To learn how it’s made.
KEVIN: You’re getting kind of access to see how the sausage is made.
MOLLY: And also the reassurance that what we’re doing in our rehearsal rooms is the same thing. You know?
KEVIN: It humanizes it.
KEVIN: I kind of feel that too. Sometimes I selfishly wish there were more opportunities for writers to get in the room the way an AD does, cause I feel that too, I’ll go see a show like Father Comes Home From the Wars and be so blown away by the polish of the writing and how seamlessly it works, and then you hear stuff like this, they were like working through this thing to make it, and it humanizes it in a way that I think is instructive to us doing our thing.
MOLLY: Oh totally. Well and just like, anything that comes from new plays in a theater. One of the big things they struggled with is the first ten pages of Part Two, which is Smith and the Colonel before Hero comes onto the stage. Because Hero is the thing that makes all the dynamics happen in that show, and before he comes on you’re sort of like, what are these two white guys talking about?
KEVIN: It’s startling.
MOLLY: Yeah, you’re sort of like, what’s happening? And there were discussions on like how long can we sustain that after already watching an hour of this show, and should there be an intermission?
KEVIN: But it’s like going to the second track of an album, where it’s suddenly a very different sound.
MOLLY: Yeah, two white guys.
KEVIN: That second act, it was like a whole different play.
MOLLY: It is.
KEVIN: Yeah I guess it is. She thinks of them as separate plays. They’re not acts of a play.
MOLLY: No, they’re three plays.
KEVIN: I thought of that second one, by the end of it, that it was like a really really rich, profound Tarantino movie. That’s what it felt like.
MOLLY: (laughter) I also love the image of – now I’m just geeking out – the image of him holding the noose. Like this white guy in this noose, so intense.
KEVIN: Is Suzan-Lori in the middle of the second trilogy?
MOLLY: I don’t — umm, the things I know are not even real, they’re like —
KEVIN: (laughter) That’s going to be the last line of this interview. “The things I know are not even real.”