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Wrekless Watson, Tamara McMillian, and Cortez L. Johnson in "Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)" at Intrepid Theatre Company. (Photo by Daren Scott)

Shades of Gray in ‘Father Comes Home From the Wars’

At Intrepid Theatre, costumes for Suzan-Lori Parks’s Civil War-set take on ‘The Odyssey’ evoke both the past and the present.

Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) bends and blends time on two obvious levels: It references Homer’s Odyssey to tell the story of Hero, a Civil War-era slave who’s offered his freedom if he joins his master, a Confederate colonel, in the fight. But in recounting Hero’s journey from plantation to battle and back, Father has another era in mind: our own fraught neo-Confederate moment. This divided focus was clear in many elements of the original 2014 production at the Public Theater, including ESosa’s subtly anachronistic costumes. Jeanne Reith, who’s designing costumes for a revival at Intrepid Theatre Company in Encinitas, Calif., Sept. 21-Oct. 22, is similarly attuned.

“The whole feeling of the play—it’s a dichotomy between humiliation and conviction,” says Reith. “For me it’s about keeping it real while making it relevant. It needs to be significantly historical, but it also has to be applicable to culture today.”

Indeed, while she faces the typical limitations of any period piece, particularly one involving iconic uniforms, there’s room for some finer shading—literally.

Sketches of Jeanne Reith’s costumes for “Father Comes Home From the Wars” at Intrepid Theatre Company.

“The Confederates will be gray, of course, and the Union blue,” Reith says. But since Hero’s journey has him oscillating between either side, weighing his advantages, Reith is keeping some characters “non-specific when we need to. Color transmits so much energy. What are the colors that will keep people grounded in the play without feeling too strongly one way or the other?”

ESosa’s original costume for Penny, Hero’s wife, included some contemporary touches: a frayed shell top and work boots under a distressed period dress. Though Reith isn’t following that lead down to the stitch, she is contemplating “a knit top that will look like today with a period skirt, and lace-up boots that are perhaps from the 1970s but look vintage. So it will still look like the past, but it’s the past and present mixed.”

For a play set during a war, there’s another factor, Reith notes. “You’re looking for reality, but you’re also looking a little for shock value. At one point they capture a Union soldier. Does he have blood on his uniform? I’ll need to talk to the director about that.”

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