By Samuel L. Leiter
A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller’s vigorous, Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of racial tension among African-American soldiers in a U.S. Army camp during War II, was originally produced Off Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981. It became a major motion picture in 1984, featuring the young Denzel Washington as Pvt. First Class Peterson, and received two Off-Broadway revivals (1996 and 2005).
However, it’s only now getting a Broadway production, a robust but not entirely satisfactory one directed by Kenny Leon for the Roundabout Theatre Company, and headlined by Blair Underwood (A Streetcar Named Desire) and David Alan Grier (Porgy and Bess).
Fuller’s depiction of racial antagonism between whites and blacks in the segregated army of 1943-1944, when the play is set, was made especially riveting by its depiction of a black man of authority, Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (Grier), with a particular animus toward Southern blacks. He blames them, in fact, for a multitude of stereotypical behaviors that he believes demean the race.
Waters wants to eliminate such “lazy, shiftless Negroes,” whom he slurs as “geechies.” His hope is to emulate white society. Waters’s icy cruelty, which he proudly admits to having employed on previous victims, here targets Pvt. C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a guitar-playing soldier from Mississippi. (Could Waters have been a Bill Cosby influencer?)
The play begins with a flashback of the drunken Sgt. Waters being shot, his last words being “They still hate you.” It then advances to the main action, the investigation into who killed him. Arriving in Fort Neal, Louisiana, to handle the case is a black lawyer, Capt. Richard Davenport (Underwood). Black officers being so rare at the time, Capt. Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell), the white CO of the camp, is unequivocally startled by Davenport’s presence and struggles to accept him on equal terms, even while disavowing racial bias.
What follows plays out as a familiar criminal procedural, with Davenport interviewing the men under Waters’s authority, all of them members of the camp’s formidable baseball team (they’d played in the Negro League). As the interviews are conducted, the events described by the soldiers are enacted as flashbacks, at least one with a flashback within a flashback. Fuller pulls off this technique with great fluidity as the focus shifts back and forth between past and present.
Underwood, determined to root out the truth, also confronts a pair of white soldiers, Lt. Byrd (Nate Mann) and Capt. Wilcox (Lee Aaron Rosen), the former overtly racist. Given Waters’s attitudes, there are multiple black soldiers who despised him. They’re played by Rob Demery, Warner Miller, McKinley Belcher III, Billy Eugene Jones, Jared Grimes, and former NFL All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha, excellent in the key role of Peterson. Then again, it’s possible the KKK was involved. Finally, of course, the killer is uncovered, and we come to understand the meaning behind Water’s last words.
Leon moves the drama forward with dynamic precision, using Derek McLane’s neutral setting of pillars and wood planking, which, as expressively lit by Allen Lee Hughes, allows the various locales—mainly barracks and offices—to shift seamlessly into place. Often, they’re slid on in choreographed movements set to chain gang-style stamping and music. Music, especially the blues, frequently heightens the atmosphere.
Although generally well-acted, with an especially noteworthy turn by the versatile Grier, the production leans too heavily on melodramatic effects. Shouted confrontations—Underwood, mostly on target, sometimes falls into this trap—can seem more premeditated than organic. Several performances seem to have been ratcheted up (O’Connell’s, for example) to satisfy the needs of a big Broadway house, an approach that robs the material of the naturalism required for us to ignore the plot’s contrivances. One such example is how long it takes for Davenport to discover such crucial information as the fate of Memphis, which, by all rights, he should have known much earlier.
One can also question the decision to have several cast members go shirtless for such long stretches, the actors in each case displaying gym-toned physiques that are unlikely to have been as common in 1944 as this production insists. Even Capt. Davenport flashes an impressive torso as he dons his shirt, not even bothering with the standard undershirt he would normally have worn. One can’t help feeling all this beefcake—which actually inspires audience hooting—is pandering.
These cavils aside, there’s enough dramatic interest, socio-historical dynamite, and charismatic energy in this revival of A Soldier’s Play to keep you at attention throughout its hour and 50 minutes.
A Soldier’s Play. Through March 15 at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues). One hour 50 minutes with one intermission. www.roundabouttheatre.org
Photos: Joan Marcus