Suzan-Lori Parks earned the 2002 Pulitzer for her exhilarating and poetic "Topdog/Underdog" and, even before that, was already one of the most provocative playwrights we have.
So we're struggling to see beneath the obvious, almost banal surfaces of "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)," the first third of nine projected plays about the black experience spanning from the Civil War to today.
This initial chunk, which runs nearly three hours, does provoke questions. Unfortunately, so far, anyway, they are more confusing than interesting. For example, although the performance style resembles an epic poem, do the West Texas slaves really have to be named after characters from Greek and Roman mythology? Why is the main character (the formidably engaging Sterling K. Brown) given the mythological woman's name, Hero?
If he is the "father" who comes home from serving as his master's valet on the wrong side of the Civil War, shouldn't we know it by the end of the slow-moving day? And when a wise-talking lost dog named Odyssey (the amusing Jacob Ming-Trent with a shag-rug belly) bursts into the sober finale, how is it possible to avoid wondering why Parks chose this moment -- the one that most seriously questions the price of freedom -- to shoehorn in some comic relief?
We first meet the characters waiting for dawn outside a slave cabin. That's when the much-admired Hero will decide whether to go with his "boss-master" to fight for the South. If he instead stays to work the fields, the other slaves -- including his beloved almost wife, Penny (the terrific Jenny Jules) -- will be punished. We also learn about a betrayal in which Homer (Jeremie Harris) got his foot chopped off.
The second part takes us to battle, where the boss (Ken Marks) brags about the joy of owning people, and his Yankee prisoner (Louis Cancelmi) sits in a wood cage and blinks a lot. Finally, we're back at the cabin, where many of the same actors, now playing runaway slaves, wait outside for darkness, and Penny waits for her Hero.
Sometimes Parks bounces lines among characters in gritty verse. Often, a 19th century troubadour underscores the action with his guitar or sings a sentimental song by Parks. We keep waiting for her to tighten the narrative strings until we feel the playwright's keen presence -- or, failing that, feel something at all.
WHAT "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)"
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $60-$70; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Perplexing epic by provocative Parks