Seattle-based director Valerie Curtis-Newton has worked in New Orleans before. She directed Yellowman in 2004 and Shotgun in 2009 for Southern Rep. (She also was scheduled to direct Stop Kiss, for which she held auditions a week before Hurricane Katrina arrived. It never was produced.)
Part of John Biguenet's trilogy about Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, Shotgun involves a black family and a white family who live in adjoining halves of a shotgun double during the city's recovery. Curtis-Newton was intrigued by the experience.
"I really liked the way the balance of audience was a diverse mix of people," she says. "Shotgun was interesting because it has black people and white people together talking about the effects of the storm and the levees breaking. The audience was super diverse. I really enjoyed that about the audience here."
In the wake of the removal of monuments to the Confederacy and its military leaders, Curtis-Newton is back to direct another timely drama. Suzan-Lori Parks' Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3) is about a slave offered a rare chance at self-determination. While the Confederacy is fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, Hero's owner, Colonel ("Boss master" to the slaves), offers him his freedom if he'll follow Colonel to war and help the Confederacy. Colonel gives Hero a Confederate uniform while he decides.
Hero (Sam Malone) has been a bit more privileged than his fellow slaves, and they're not sure what he will do. Hero would have to leave his love, Penny (Idella Johnson), and his elderly father (Harold X. Evans). The group gathers before dawn to talk about Hero's choice, and they cut up a little in the modern language and slang Parks uses in the play. One slave is willing to bet his spoon that Hero will go. Another is willing to bet a button he won't.
Homer (Robert Diago DoQui) tried to run away, but he was caught and maimed as punishment. He thinks Hero should go — and run away when he gets near the Union Army.
Hero has his own view. He doesn't want to "steal" his freedom. If he goes, he wants Boss master to live up to his promise.
"I love the idea of the exploration of freedom," Curtis-Newton says. "What it means. What you'll do to get it. Who you'll become when you have it. ... What does the fight for freedom look like."
The play is not a period piece. The language is contemporary, and at times characters address the audience. It also has other references, including names that invoke Homer's epics and Ulysses' return from the Trojan War. (Curtis-Newton notes that Parks was a military brat whose father served in the Vietnam War.)
The work also relates to another historical marker, a celebration of the end of slavery.
"The holiday that African-Americans call Juneteenth is the underpinning of the play," Curtis-Newton says. "The idea is that you're free but you don't even know you're free."