BWW Review: David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood Lead Excellent Cast of Kenny Leon's Revival of Charles Fuller's A SOLDIER'S PLAY
Roundabout mounts the Pulitzer-winner's first Broadway production
When a soldier in the United States Army, just before the final surge of World War II, is found shot to death in the Louisiana town where he's stationed, the immediate assumption is that one or more of the locals committed the murder.
That's because the soldier in question is African-American, a member of the army's segregated unit, and the thought of black men defending our country was regarded as an outrage by many whites, particularly in the deep south.
This is the premise that begins Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning A SOLDIER'S PLAY, a striking social commentary within a murder mystery that premiered in 1981 in a hit Off-Broadway production presented by The Negro Ensemble. A film version, titled "A Soldier's Story," soon followed, as did numerous regional productions and two more Off-Broadway mountings.
With the country's white leadership not certain how black soldiers would react to combat duty, not to mention not being fully comfortable with the image of them coming back home as war heroes, their units are primarily confined to clean-up duty and other menial tasks. Although that's the case for the soldiers who are the focus of Fuller's play, they were also all young Negro League ballplayers, now flashing their superior skills in an army tournament every weekend.
In this production, one ballplayer turns his back to the audience to reveal he's wearing number 47, significant as the number Jackie Robinson will wear with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he breaks Major League Baseball's color barrier shortly after the war.
Immediately after the murder is discovered, black soldiers are searched to ensure there will no retaliation against what is suspected to be the act of local Klansmen and Captain Richard Davenport (sharp and businesslike Underwood), a Howard University grad lawyer and one of the few black officers, is sent to investigate. The base's white West Point grad Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O'Connell, playing an otherwise pleasant fellow raised on racist ignorance) feels awkward working with a black man of equal rank ("Being in charge just doesn't look right on Negroes."), and is especially concerned that the locals won't cooperate with him.
Taylor's investigation not only reveals the expected hostility expressed by white soldiers, but also a toxic environment perpetuated by Sergeant Vernon Waters, played by Grier as a man of bear-like toughness that selectively gives way to moments of empathy and vulnerability.
The only road to success and integration Waters sees is through assimilation into white society, achieved by exemplary conduct and the elimination of any suggestions of distinctly African-American culture.
His recent history includes seeing to it that Sergeant James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones) was demoted to private after being drunk on duty and being especially hard on the well-liked Southern-born Private C.J. Memphis (subtle and touching J. Alphonse Nicholson) for enjoying entertaining white officers with his guitar playing. The only one willing to stand up to him is fellow Northerner Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha).
As Taylor delves deeper into the case, the play becomes less of a whodunit, and more of a why-was-it-done.
Though the men keep matters strictly military in public, casual private moments have them improvising gospel harmonies and adding slick moves to their regimented drills; expressions of their upbringing that Waters would find revolting, but help preserve their shared culture as they long for a chance to prove their worth fighting for a country that would have them hide their presence.