When the Negro Ensemble Company presented Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play in its Off Broadway premiere in 1981, the production garnered a number of theater awards and Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year. Norman Jewison directed the film version retitled A Soldier’s Story in 1984 where it was nominated for numerous awards. It has been produced in two revivals Off Broadway in subsequent decades. At last Fuller’s searing, profound work about race prejudice internalized has received its premiere on Broadway, thirty-nine years later. It is currently running at American Airlines Theatre.
With exceptional direction by the amazing Kenny Leon (Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare in the Park 2019) and sterling ensemble work headed up with masterful performances by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, A Soldier’s Play has come to Broadway with vibrant force and vigor. The dramatic arc of development revolves around solving a murder mystery. The body of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier portrays the unlikable, brutal, tragic Sergeant) is found with two bullet holes. The murder case is solved through flashbacks of scenes during the testimony of witnesses, narration and scenes unfolding in the present day 1944, Fort Neal, Louisiana.
Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell in a fine performance) and his superiors take precautions with the men of Waters’ platoon Company B, 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. They fear that Waters’ men may engage in revenge killings against red necks in the area of Fort Neal, Louisiana. It is not clear at the outset, but Waters may have been lynched by the KKK or good ole boys who intend to keep blacks bowing and scraping. Until his murder is investigated, and more is discovered about what may have happened, Waters’ men are guarded by MPs who surround their barracks so that none of them get entangled with white townspeople. Private Hensen suggests that the Klan killed Waters because lynchings have been happening since he arrived at Fort Neal. But he may have been murdered by white officers in a racial killing. As a result, commanding officers on the base have given the case a “low priority status,” and are ready to sweep all they discover under the rug.
The consideration makes sense in 1944 during WW II. At the Fort Neal and on every base in the U.S. military, black and white soldiers are segregated in their living quarters, platoons and companies. Service in the military is as discriminatory as the “separate but equal” oppressions of the Jim Crow South. In the day to day operations, the black companies are detailed with doing the scut work and menial assignments in order to confirm that they are the inferior race. Indeed, the men have not yet been sent to Europe to fight. This is another racist assumption that they cannot be trusted, but fit the stereotypic mischaracterization of blacks being lazy, shiftless, mentally slow and cowardly.
Fuller’s play focuses on the nullifying effects of racism as blacks attempt to rise in a culture that oppresses them, and counter-productively rejects or ignores their gifts and contributions. Using the lens of the past during WWII and the backdrop of segregation in the military, Fuller brilliantly emphasizes the psychological impacts of racism which creates annihilating divisions not only between blacks and whites, but especially between blacks and blacks. An inferred theme is that as the fascist Nazis did for Germany, these behaviors also, are incredibly destructive to “the master race.”
Fuller’s play reveals a richness of themes, characterizations and conflicts that timelessly reflect great currency for us today with underlying institutional racism and the increasing evidence of racism unleashed by the White House. Fuller also digs deeply into the black on black abuse and crime that evidences the internalization of white oppression and denigrating values and attitudes that blacks unconsciously accept as they seek to redefine themselves culturally apart from the mordant ethics of white culture.
Leon, highlights these themes with his superb direction and vision of Fuller’s play. His is a fascinating and nuanced iteration that includes symbolism and foreshadowing manifested by Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting design and the music rendered in song by the on-point cast, elucidated by the excellent sound design of Dan Moses Schreier. At appropriate junctures in the production, beginning from the outset, Leon has the soldiers in Company B sing. We come to understand later that they are mourning one of their own. The music ties them together in a unity that cannot be breached by the racist white officers.
However, this unity must be breached by Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) a lawyer assigned to the 343 Military Police Corp Unit, if he is to discover who murdered Waters. In a devastatingly powerful, psychologically sensitive and heartfelt performance, Underwood introduces us to the racial dynamic he must confront as he analyzes the situation with objective tolerance, restraint and courage. It is an irony that in Davenport’s encounters with white officers, who would abuse his rank and his education, he stands his own ground with dignity and grace, employing the full force of his culture’s weapons (including a rumor that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is behind the investigation). No publicity is good publicity; if the case, which has been given low priority, is not handled properly, it could embarrass the military in a time of war.
Davenport, who is a maverick outlier, confounds the racist military officers who don’t know what to do with him and how to behave around him. He is a confident, self-realized, unbowed black man who is educationally superior to them, having achieved a law degree in addition to four years of college. Davenport’s talking “like a white man” and his staid nature and inner power particularly annoy Captain Taylor who dislikes that Davenport outranks him in intelligence and education, though they are on equal footing as Captains.
They disagree continually about Davenport’s mission, his competence, his confidence bucking the system and his insistence in interrogating and arresting white officers who might be charged with Waters’ murder. Underwood’s Davenport and O’Connell’s Taylor are authentic in their head-to-head arguments which intensify as Davenport incisively moves through his investigation. Both actors contribute to creating suspense and heightening the themes about why Waters was murdered, which gives rise to the underlying psychological and racial components that his murder reveals.
Fuller’s depth of characterization, his wisdom and his clear-eyed perception of what it means to be black in the military and in America then and now is only enhanced and codified in this insightful rendering shepherded by Kenny Leon to perfection. Each of the relationships between and among the enlisted soldiers of Company B, Waters and the white officers reflect explosive, vital issues. The irony of the setting is that America, which is mandated to fight and destroy fascism, of course refuses to adequately confront its racist fascism at home. The white culture forces susceptible blacks to obviate their own identity and culture to embrace white culture to “thrive.” Of course by doing this, blacks must reject their own people, their own very being as they internalize the value of being white and act white to get ahead, destroying their very valuable spirit and the soul of blackness.
This mistaken assumption is exemplified by Sergeant Waters. David Alan Grier’s perceptive understanding of Waters reveals the character’s limitations and sorrows. His cruelty toward some of the men in his company is an outgrowth of venerating white values and not defining himself as having worth apart from the white cultural “successes”. Grier’s portrayal is complex and rich with nuanced meaning. He reveals Waters’ realization of how he has destroyed himself and others as the great tragedy of the play. He is stunning and sardonic in his provocation of the white officers, and it is then we realize that he cannot get untangled from the morass he has created in abusing himself and others. He has become the epitome as the white man’s creature who perpetrates the most pernicious elements of discrimination and hatred by oppressing himself and attacking his own people.
Grier’s Waters is miserable and is looking to be put out of this hell he has created. And the execution he cannot effect for himself in a suicide, he provokes another to accomplish for him. His death is paralleled with another in the production. The other death is senseless genocide that Waters prompts, of course, because daily, Waters must cut out his black identity from his own soul. And in a twisted, passive aggressive revenge against blacks, whom he sees as not rising to the white man’s standards, he obliterates them. It is a slow, horrific process of self-destruction and fraud that the men in his company recognize, but cannot articulate. If they could they might be able to beneficially codify how to stop the genocidal practice of destroying oneself to “fit in” which Waters exemplifies.
In addition to the exceptional performances already mentioned are the performances of J. Alphonse Nicholson portraying Private C. J. Memphis and Rob Demery portraying Corporal Bernard Cobb. Nicholson’s Memphis is sensitive, loving and accepting. His speech to his close friend Corporal Cobb (who, too, is kind and elucidating) is poignant and filled with longing. We immediately understand where he is going in his life and why; his choice is symbolic and consequential; it is the cry of freedom from strictures which have so bound up Waters as to make him daily harm himself and target those like Memphis and Cobb.
Waters’ act of provocation and Memphis’ act are different sides of the same coin. That their behavior is directed against themselves and the black race in genocidal acts caused by racism and fascism, runs to the soul of American and is Leon’s and Fuller’s indictment against white supremacy. Indeed, if we look hard and deep enough in our justice system, in our economic inequality, in our educational inequality, the same threads of injustice prevail today. They are frighteningly manifest in the fascism of white supremacists who look to find their “place in the sun” which they fear they have lost. It is an incredible irony considering that they are blind, deaf and dumb to their own cultural creations and backwash reflected by institutional racism and discrimination that ultimately is destroying the white culture along with the black in a nihilistic seething inhumanity.
The conclusion delivered by Underwood’s Davenport that sums up the case findings and aftermath is emotionally riveting. It is as heartfelt and poignant as Nicholson’s speech as Private C. J. Memphis. But where Memphis has chosen his decision, Davenport is both blessed and cursed with infinite understanding. Indeed, we see that his recounting of what has transpired in Fort Neal is a memorial to these individuals. Also, it is triumphant in its prophesy for the future of civil rights achievements and the hoped for end of racism and discrimination which has yet to be realized even to this day in America. And finally it is a cry of anguish from the depths of Davenport’s soul: of frustration, of anger, of a cry to the heavens for justice. The interpretations are many as a capstone to this incredible production whose themes are paramount for us today.
Thankfully, Fuller’s play and this production put these themes front and center. It is impossible not to feel them, see them, know them, especially in recognizing current attempts to destroy our imperfectly realized democratic form of government by moving it toward fascism and dictatorship.
Once again kudos to the ensemble acting whose unity and and realism helped to create a memorable, thrilling night at the theater. And kudos also go to the creative team: Derek McLane (set design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Allen Lee Hughes (lighting design) Dan Moses Schreier (sound design) Thomas Schall (fight choreographer).
The must-see A Soldier’s Play is running at American Airlines Theatre (42nd St. between 7th and 8th) with one intermission until 15 March. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.