Review: A SOLDIER'S PLAY at Kennedy Center

Do not miss this scorching and soul-searching A Soldier’s Play!

By: Dec. 18, 2022
Review: A SOLDIER'S PLAY at Kennedy Center
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A searing indictment of prejudice and racism in all its permutations wrapped in a fascinating "whodunit" mystery ----the compelling Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Charles Fuller, A Soldier's Play, is now a knockout of a production at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater.

The play is fascinating in that it fuses together so many layers and levels of racist and prejudicial context as it affects those involved in this very well-written play. There is the influence of military organizational prejudice, the prejudice of a small southern town in 1944 (Fort Neal, Louisiana), the context of a World War raging where there is no respect for the colored troops, the fierce competition of the Negro baseball leagues, the racism of blacks against each other (in this probing play, black Americans have absorbed white racist attitudes towards one another)and internalized racism (as embodied by the self-loathing character of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters ,played expertly by Eugene Lee).

Director Kenny Leon directs the very fast moving and very scenes that comprise this emotional play with great dexterity and skillful intelligence. The murder of a non-commissioned officer opens the play, and it is scrupulously developed via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards. Scenes move very swiftly and are tightly coiled and never over extended.

A sense of rough physicality and well-choreographed marching maneuvers hovers over this production and for this we must commend fight choreographer Thomas Schall and movement consultant Jared Grimes.

Transitions and time frames in this production are handled in a very cleanly delineated and matter -of -fact manner ----past flashbacks, present action and future scenes are intermixed with skill. This is quite commendable considering the many time switches in the play.

All the actors in this cast of twelve are excellent. Renowned actor Norm Lewis (as Captain Richard Davenport) portrays his role with an air of steely and calm authority. Lewis' commanding and discerning interpretation shows him as always thinking one step ahead of the other characters ----as this character would rightfully do.

Eugene Lee as the venal, self-loathing and tormented Sergeant Vernon C. Waters was superb. Mr. Lee was marvelous in his anguish and lacerating bellowing as well as in his quieter scenes while musing aloud.

Sheldon D. Brown as Private C.J. Memphis plays his vital role with aplomb. Mr. Brown's scene while suffering in prison was an exceptional feat of acting prowess.

Tarik Lowe was wonderful as Private First-Class Melvin Peterson. Howard Overshown delivered a fine performance as Private James Wilkie.

William Connell, Alex Michael Givens, Branden Davon Lindsay, Malik Esoj Childs, Chattan Mayes Johnson, Matthew Goodrich, and Will Adams all contributed solid and fully fleshed-out performances.

The physical look and logistics of the superb set by Derek McLane mirror the mechanics of the play's development nicely. The set design consists of wooden planks and panels that move effectively to shift from scenes of the barracks to the military offices.

Shafts of light evocatively light the stage by Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes.

Costumes by Dede Ayite are appropriate for military life.

This play is so remarkable in that an individual can view the play on any level of interest that they bring to it ---for, indeed, it has a more formulaic mystery/crime aspect as well as the aforementioned deeper and bolder implications.

The original off-Broadway production by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981 was heralded with great acclaim and this touring production is the production that was revived to critical applause by the Roundabout Theatre Company and a Best Revival Tony Award for 2020.

An interesting fact and arcane information: Director Norman Jewison directed the film In the Heat of the Night in 1967 and he directed the film adaptation of A Soldier's Play in 1984 but it was retitled as A Soldier's Story. Both films have the similarities of being mysteries/whodunits with large elements of racism in the story.

In a milieu of turmoil, prejudice and rigid regimentation music is often the only healing balm amidst these soldiers, so it was a pleasure to hear some brief singing moments ---the fine sound design is by Dan Moses Schreier.

Though justice is achieved in the formulaic component of the play, in a larger context, the play seems to be saying that we are all victims of life's harsh realities and that we must fight with dignity to survive in this world. At the end of this play, it is heartbreaking to hear the sad twist of fate for all the characters in this play.

Do not miss this scorching and soul-searching A Soldier's Play!

Running Time: Two Hours including one fifteen-minute intermission

A Soldier's Play runs through January 8, 2023 at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater located at 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20566.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus


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