Our first post this year comes from Rona Wang, a first-year student who studied in London for her fall semester with UC Berkeley’s Global Edge program. One of the courses Global Edge participants take is called London: Theatre Capital, taught by Professor Alan Read from King’s College London. In her post, Rona analyzes one of the plays the class attended and describes how studying theater in London has been a truly eye-opening experience.
UC Berkeley Global Edge courses are designed to let us take university breadth requirements while also learning more about the city we are studying in. One of our London-based courses is called “London: Theatre Capital,” in which we attend a performance every other week, alternating with site visits to places like the Tate Modern to explore what “performance” really means.
On Tuesday, October 27, we attended Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” (Parts 1, 2 and 3) at the Royal Court Theatre. The “play” is actually the first three of nine short plays narrating one family’s journey through generations leading up to the present day.
Set in west Texas during the American Civil War, the story follows a slave called Hero, who is promised his freedom by his master if he fights with him for the Confederacy.
The play teeters somewhere between literature and theater. The use of character names like Homer, Odyssey, Ulysses, and Penny (Penelope) go beyond mere allusion, highlighting the classical tragic and dramatic elements used, as well as helping to structure the meandering dialogue. Parody overextends itself, phrases are repeated, minor characters have no apparent utility, and one far-fetched event was strange enough to have been taken straight out of magical realism. Even the costumes were anachronistic mishmashes of the past and the present. Having been raised on the polished editing of Hollywood, it was a struggle to accept such excessiveness as a true part of entertainment and performance.
The stylistic choices, however, did not detract from the play’s inventiveness and strength. Coming from America, it was difficult to ignore the parallels drawn between the historical battle onstage and the current battles waged at home. The Royal Court has long been famous for putting on shows that grapple with controversial historical and political issues in contemporary contexts. This play seemed to suggest that to take responsibility for our future, we must ask ourselves: who do we become when we wear our true colors underneath the ones we display? Is it worth fighting for something you do not believe in? Can we remain faithful to our morals?
This course has been eye-opening in more ways than I expected. Sitting in a darkened room, surrounded mostly by strangers, the audience is forced to confront the performance and grapple with the subtext. The shows we have seen have covered everything from mining in Africa to euthanasia, stories told through human relationships, the dynamics of ex-lovers, parents’ influences on their children, and the struggle to be independent while also yearning for safety.
Many Americans might perceive the English to be plummy Victorian prudes—and some Londoners really do have a strut in their step—but for a city considered mundane, it certainly is unabashedly raw about its flaws and naïveté.
Theater is so much more than musicals or happy endings or even entertainment; theater is a platform upon which anything can and should be said.
~Rona Wang, UC Berkeley Global Edge
Check out the videos below for the play’s official trailer and an interview with the playwright and director.
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