Charles Fuller’s ‘A Soldier’s Play’ Is a Brilliant, Searing Indictment of Racism on Broadway

Tim Teeman
Courtesy Joan Marcus

‘A Soldier’s Play’

World War II rumbles on, overseas and unseen in Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982. Within the play, another war on bodies and minds—still as corrosive today as it was then—plays out, as the poison of racism and oppression turns both inward and outward on a group of black soldiers.

This Roundabout Theatre Production (opening Tuesday night to March 15 at the American Airlines Theatre), almost 40 long years since the play’s creation, is also its Broadway debut: an indictment of prejudice in and of itself.

The play begins with Sgt. Vernon C. Waters’ (David Alan Grier) last words—information he wants to desperately impart and desperate, terrible cries of self-revelation—“They’ll still hate you! They still hate you... They still hate you!” Then an unseen figure shoots Waters dead, twice—once in the head and once in the chest.

A Soldier’s Play—based on Fuller’s own experiences in the U.S. Army between 1959 and 1962—is much more than the still-satisfying whodunit you might expect it to be. It is a fiercely written and directed (by Kenny Leon), and beautifully performed, indictment of cultural and institutional racism, and not just the damage racists do with their words and fists but the damage racism does to the minds of black people. 

The main part of the action takes place during World War II in 1944, with Capt. Richard Davenport (an excellent Blair Underwood) investigating Waters’ murder within the segregated base—Company B, 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company at Fort Neal, Louisiana—that he presided over with a rod of iron. Derek McLane’s set evokes a moody, earthy barracks, with Allen Lee Hughes’ precise lighting taking us out into staid offices and country roads at night.

Although we first see Waters as a victim of murder, we principally see him as a power-abusing bully, particularly to Pfc. Melvin Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha) and C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who doesn’t take his petty vindictiveness lying down. We first meet the company—Cpl. Bernard Cobb (Rob Demery), Pvt. James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones), Pvt. Louis Henson (McKinley Belcher III), and Pvt. Tony Smalls (Jared Grimes)—after Waters’ death. The presumption on the men’s part is that the Klan shot Waters dead. 

“The man got hisself lynched! We’re in the South, and we can’t do a goddamn thing about it,” says Henson. However, as Wilkie points out, the Klan usually takes a soldier’s stripes off him before they lynch him. Waters’ uniform was found intact.

These men—all brilliantly, energetically played by the cast—know racism all too well. They have experienced it from white people off the base, and they experienced a warped form of it from Waters himself, who has tried to clothe himself in the uniform of authority to denigrate the men beneath him (until he too realizes he will be judged and condemned for his skin color). “I’m a soldier, Peterson!” he tells one of the soldiers. “First, last, and always! I’m the kinda colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes!” His bullying will eventually lead to a suicide.

Authority is no insulation from prejudice. Davenport himself realizes this, even though he has been sent by top brass to investigate Waters’ death.

Underwood skillfully captures him as a man just about managing to professionally contain his anger (although a modern audience is furious that he should he have to) as he is talked down to by Jerry O’Connell’s white, stupid, and intensely ignorant Capt. Charles Taylor, who tells him: “We didn’t have any Negroes at (West) Point. I never saw a Negro until I was 12 or 13.” For the black soldiers, the plan for an integrated army is an anathema.

(Note to Blair Underwood fans: At the start of Act II he is partially unclothed. The reaction of the audience the night this critic was there was a delicious amount of cheering and whoops. The play’s serious themes were momentarily suspended, and Underwood smiled at the mass, very vocal objectification.)

Davenport is more warmly welcomed by the black men he asks questions of, beyond happy and proud to see a black man at such a senior rank. As the play switches back in time, the prime suspects come to be Byrd and Wilcox, two white officers who see a drunken Waters for the last time, and who the overtly racist Wilcox insults and beats up. He is just as rude to Davenport because of the color of his skin.

Sozzled, we inwardly cheer for Waters when he sees the truth of the racism he has been a victim of for the first time and tells the vicious Byrd: “No, sah! I ain’t straightenin’ up for y’all no more! I ain’t doin’ nothin’ white folks say do, no more!... Nothin’ changed—see? And I’ve tried everything! Everything!”

Even if you play by the white rules, the play suggests, the system will act against the black man. Even once the murder mystery is solved, even though Davenport will tell the audience about the trajectory of race-related progress that will follow these events, three things starkly stand out. 

The first is Waters’ last words, the second is Underwood’s coruscating roar of pain and anger as Davenport considers the vector of external and internalized racism, and its many personal and political, and all-corrosive, effects he has unearthed and lives within. And the third is what Davenport tells a chastened and newly educated Taylor when the white officer contemplates the idea of “negroes” being in charge: “Oh, you’ll get used to it—you can bet your ass on that. Captain—you will get used to it.” 

Fuller reputedly feels that this last line had prevented the play from being on Broadway until now. Underwood ensures that it rings out to maximum, historic effect, proclaiming it with a mixture of pride and anger. Within and outside of the play, it is a final, powerful owning of voice and space, and it still needs to be heard as a determined prophecy today.

‘Paris’

The writer and actor Eboni Booth’s lean and impressive debut play, Paris, directed by Knud Adams (Atlantic Theater, Stage 2, to Feb 16), couldn’t be further from the City of Lights. There is no majestic Eiffel Tower, no shopping on the Champs Élysées, no champagne at that cute café in the Marais.

Instead, it is Christmas 1995 and we are in the dank back area of a store named Barry’s selling kind of everything off the interstate in Paris, Vermont, whose employees hustle and blow up at each other—you really do not want to cross Danielle Skrasstad’s Maxine—as they try to survive.

The outstanding cast is led by Jules Latimer as Emmie, a black woman, who needs, just like everyone else, money to survive. She is watchful of everyone around her. As they get crazier and shoutier, and professional and personal events spiral over the seasonal period, she goes deeper into a self-protective shell. Someone else disappears more mysteriously.

David Zinn’s strikingly dour, box-strewn, mankily decorated set is every cruddy back-of-store area you could imagine, with a fake Christmas tree’s twinkling lights offering a sliver of escapist magic.

Each character is both sharply written and played, including Ann McDonough (the warm-hearted Wendy); Christopher Dylan White as the chaotic and sweet Logan, who nurses musical ambitions, Gar (Eddie K. Robinson, a stern manager with mystery attached); James Murtaugh as the quietly cutting Dev; and Bruce McKenzie, whose menacing presence as Carlisle will make your heart stop when he meets Emmie.

So no, you’re not by the Seine, but Booth’s play will transport you to a place that comes to feel—in its own way—as intimate and epic as the city with which it shares its name.

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