Mt. Airy’s Quintessence Theatre sets the table for Juneteenth with a modern classic about the Civil War

Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” set during the Civil War, has its Philadelphia premiere during Juneteenth.

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a scene from the play

Penny (Déjà Anderson-Ross), Hero's wife, prays during a rehearsal for Quintessence Theatre's production of ''Father Comes Home from the Wars'' at the Sedgewick Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Let’s start at the end. “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” produced by Quintessence Theater at the Sedgwick in Mt Airy, is true to its title — the central character, an enslaved man called Hero, returns home to a Texas plantation after fighting in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

The play concludes with the first Juneteenth celebration when news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas in 1865. But because of the moral and familial trials that have transpired over the play’s three-hour run time, the celebration is tempered for Hero, for whom freedom is complicated.

a scene from the play
Quintessence Theater Company actors rehearse a scene from ”Father Comes Home from the Wars” at Sedgewick Theatre. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It is not coincidental that Quintessence Theatre programmed “Father Comes Home” at the end of its season of plays about love and war. The four-week run coincides with this year’s Juneteenth celebrations.

“Quintessence believes in using the classics to look at the present moment and the future,” said artistic director Alex Burns. “Suzan-Lori Parks is doing the same thing by looking at The Odyssey, putting it into the American Civil War, and then asking us: Where are we now, and where do we need to go?”

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a scene from the play
Monroe Barrick is The Oldest Old Man, the father figure in Quintessence Theatre’s production of ”Father Comes Home From the Wars.” (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The play begins with a celebration. In the first act, set among enslaved people in a Texas plantation, the characters are dressed in period formalwear: hoop skirt dresses for ladies, and tuxedos for the men. The script by Suzan-Lori Parks does not open with a celebration, per se, but director Raelle Myrick-Hodges wanted the audience to walk into a high time right off the bat.

“I wanted an audience to walk in and feel underdressed, because we don’t celebrate to the highest these moments,” Myrick-Hodges said. “I’m not a slave, and I’ve been blessed to not have had to live the life of one. Yet I’ve still been asked to move dishes at events that I’m a guest at. It doesn’t matter what I wear. That’s the point. That’s why they’re in formal wear.”

This is the local premiere of “Father Comes Home From the Wars,” which launched in 2014 to wide acclaim. Parks had already won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous play, “Topdog/Underdog” in 2002.

“Father Comes Home” is a loose retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, adapting its well-trod structure to the Civil War. Parks makes sure we know that by having Hero renamed over the course of the play Ulysses, after the leader of the Union army and the Latin variant of Odysseus. The playwright makes it even more blunt by naming Hero’s dog “Odd-See,” for his askew eyes, a homonym of Odyssey.

a scene from the play
The chorus sets the tone for Quintessence Theatre’s production of ”Father Comes Home from the Wars.” The play, by Suzan-Lori Parks, is a retelling of Odysseus set during the Civil War, as an enslaved person conscripted into the war tries to return home to Texas. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Hero faces a moral quandary at the outset: his enslaver offers him freedom on the condition he fights alongside him as a Confederate soldier. Hero is forced to decide if his personal freedom is worth risking his life for the system that enslaved him and his family.

Hero’s decision to go to war ripples across all other characters. Myrick-Hodges said “Father Comes Home” is not a retelling of the story of The Odyssey but a play inspired by its bedrock themes.

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Raelle Myrick-Hodges
Raelle Myrick-Hodges is the director for Quintessence Theatre Group’s ”Father Comes Home from the Wars” at the Sedgewick Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“It is a classic. It was a classic when they reviewed it 10 years ago. They literally called it a classic because it’s awesome,” she said. “Love, betrayal. Hate, war. Coming home, leaving home. It’s not an adaptation because what is classic is how we feel as humans, not the story itself.”

The opening night of “Father Comes Home from the Wars” is Saturday, June 1, and it runs through June 23 at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy.

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