Getting to the Deep Stuff: The Music of Father Comes Home

By Taylor Steinbeck

For playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, music isn’t just a medium she embraces in her art—it informs the very framework of her life. Growing up in a musical home, she and her siblings jitterbugged to their mother’s favorite jazz standards and belted out Puccini alongside their opera-loving father. These musical forms—along with the blues and show tunes, among others—have stayed with Parks and have influenced how she writes her plays. Embodying the playwright’s lyrical writing style, Father Comes Home from the Wars has a musicality that recalls the past while retaining emotional immediacy, making it intricately layered and deeply personal.

The Musician (Martin Luther McCoy) plays a song in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). Photo by Joan Marcus.
A blues musician herself, Parks composed the music and wrote the lyrics for the songs in Father Comes Home. Music is a part of Parks’s makeup as an artist; whether it lives in the rhythm of the dialogue or the construction of the narrative, it seeps into most of her work. “All my writing is more like songs,” said Parks in an interview with theater scholar Shawn-Mari Garrett. “I try to sing to people.”

A key element of Parks’s aesthetic is a technique she calls Rep & Rev. According to Parks in her essay The Elements of Style, repetition and revision is a “concept integral to the Jazz esthetic in which the composer or performer will write or play a musical phrase once and again and again; etc.—with each revisit the phrase is slightly revised.” Parks lifts this concept out of music and applies it to her plays. In her works, characters repeat certain phrases and words that take on new meanings in different contexts as the narrative progresses—she does this to show that characters are “experiencing their situations anew” and by extension, the audience experiences them in a new way too.

Repetition and revision isn’t just an attribute of jazz, but, according to Parks, it’s also “an integral part of the African and African-American literary and oral traditions.” Rep & Rev’s reincorporation of what has been said gives it a call and response-like quality. Call and response is a performance technique that has a long history in churches, work songs, and African American music. “In its most elemental form, it consists of a musical statement given by a song leader that is immediately followed by a response from a chorus,” says UC Santa Barbara Black Studies professor Dr. Earl L. Stewart.” In Father Comes Home, the Chorus of Runaway Slaves performs call and response as they contemplate when they should make their getaway.

SECOND: Dark enough to jet.


Not yet

Not yet

Not yet.

By using call and response, Parks aligns herself with African American storytellers and musicians of the past, while building her own distinctly African American narrative. Just as jazz weaves several musical genres such as the blues, spirituals, and West African musical customs into a single composition, the music of Father Comes Home draws inspiration from a variety of sources, from the bluesy beats of singer-songwriter Robert Johnson to the Broadway sounds of musical theater writers Rodgers and Hammerstein. Parks excavates both her own personal history and the history of her ancestors to experience a musical catharsis. “My plays beg for feeling. They beg for the gut response,” says Parks. “Let the stomach-brain, let the heart-brain, inform your head-brain, and not always the other way around. Because then we’re getting to some deep stuff. And it’s frightening. But it’s also healing.”

Don't miss this Saturday's InterACT event, Playtime! Before this matinee performance, get hands-on with the theater artists who make it happen at this interactive workshop. In this special pre-show workshop, you will gain firsthand insight from the principal and understudy musicians who create the spirit of Suzan-Lori Parks’s mythic drama—don’t miss this opportunity to hear from beloved Bay Area musician/performers Martin Luther McCoy and David James—and their guitars! Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) ends this Sunday, May 20, at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the music in the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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