3/28/2023 A SOLDIER’S PLAY Broadway in Atlanta / Fox Theatre
THE WAR AT HOME
It is 1944 and the eve of the Allied Invasion of France. In Louisiana, a black army company is in training for a war they will perhaps never get to fight. On a drunken night, Sergeant Vernon Waters staggers from town, shouting to no one who cares, “They’ll still hate you!” A shot rings out, and he is dead.
In their infinite wisdom, the Army has assigned black M.P. Captain Richard Davenport to investigate. At first, it is suspected the killer(s) are the local Klan. As Captain Davenport’s investigation lurches along, it is apparent that the Jim Crow south is in full force, that the army doesn’t really care “whodunnit,” and that the black soldiers themselves are grappling with internal hatreds and grudges and bigotries.
Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play first appeared in 1982, quickly winning the New York Drama Critic’s Award for Best American Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize. It was quickly optioned for the movies, and in 1984, appeared in cineplexes as A Soldier’s Story, featuring some members of the original cast including Denzel Washington. In 2020, The Roundabout Theatre restaged it under the direction of Atlanta’s own Kenny Leon, winning that year’s Tony Award for Best Revival. COVID unfortunately forced an early closing, but it is now touring the country in a crackerjack production that is compellingly intense.
Sadly, even though it is set in the Jim Crow south, the play was depressingly relevant at the time of its original 1982 production and equally relevant today. No, there are no Jim Crow “rules” requiring a white officer to be with any black officer questioning a white soldier, but the portrayals of unconscious micro-aggressions and racial assumptions still ring true, still find root in incidents both major and minor. Although the focus of this piece is the barriers faced by blacks at the time, the assumptions and aggressions from the blacks themselves are front and center, as Captain Davenport quickly discovers.
Yes, the play is, at heart, a mystery, a “whodunnit,” an unravelling of lies and secrets. But it is also an acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, Sgt. Waters “had it coming.” The Sergeant is revealed to have been a petty tyrant, a man who despised blacks who “played along,” who acted the fool, who contributed to the stereotypes embedded in white consciousness. He even manipulates a simple private into an offense that leads to the brig and to suicide.
Under Mr. Leon’s direction, we see the soldiers engaging in barracks high jinks and camaraderie and petty squabbles. Scene transitions are filled with snippets of military cadence drills sprinkled with African American rhythms and sass, lyrically sprinkled with moments of gospel and blues, flashes of ribald humor and bald-faced anguish.
This is an absorbing and memorable play, a journey into the past with echoes reflecting today’s racial divisions. It is filled with sharp dialogue and vivid characters – at first the soldiers seem interchangeable and alike, but as Captain Davenport’s investigation continues, their individuality emerges and crystalizes, leading up to a devasting “what happened after all this” reveal at the end. There are no real villains here, apart from a starkly bigoted MP and a faceless Army Bureaucracy.
Broadway Musical legend Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess) leads a stellar cast as Captain Davenport. Mr. Lewis brings to the role a gravitas and integrity that ultimately wins the respect of his white antagonist. He also gets to display his considerable vocal talent in a blues number that almost stops the show.
1982 cast member Eugene Lee is also memorable as the doomed Sgt. Waters. Others of note are Sheldon Brown as the simple giant C.J. Memphis and William Connell as Captain Taylor (Davenport’s white “nemesis”). In fact, this entire ensemble vividly gels and excels.
Derek McLane’s two-story set (starkly lit by Allen Lee Hughes) focuses on the barracks, but quickly morphs into various locations and flashbacks. And, of course, Mr. Leon’s expert direction keeps the pace tight, the period integrity consistent, and the transitions elegant.
It has been many years since I’ve read this play (or seen its film adaptation), but this production brought back its details, and the intervening years have added nuance and perspective that may not have been so evident in 1982. A Soldier’s Play is an important piece of American Theatre, and this revival is dynamic and absorbing and well worth our time and attention.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #SoldiersPlay #BroadwayInAtlanta #FoxTheatre)