Charles Fuller’s murder mystery, finally on Broadway in a fine production directed by Kenny Leon some four decades after it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is so good that even if you’ve seen the 1984 movie adaptation “A Soldier’s Story” (which marked Denzel Washington’s major movie debut) and remember who done it, the play is still riveting. That’s because, while Capt. Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) has been sent to a segregated Louisiana army base in 1944 to investigate the murder of black Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier), the playwright is investigating a much larger crime – racism.
The murder investigation is fairly straightforward, a familiar police procedural taking place in Army barracks. Davenport meets one by one with the all-black members of the Sergeant’s unit, all of them former baseball players with the Negro League (Major League Baseball having yet to be integrated), who play in the camp’s baseball team when they’re not assigned the grunt work reserved for the African-American soldiers. Each interrogation, accompanied by a dramatic flashback, attempts to solve the mystery. At first, the answer seems clear-cut: It must have been the local Ku Klux Klan; after all, as Private Louis Henson (McKinley Belcher III) reasons, “who else goes around killin’ Negroes in the South? They lynched Jefferson the week I got here, sir! And that Signal Corps guy, Daniels, two months later.”
But then we hear from Private James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones) who notes that the uniform on Sarge’s body was left untouched. “Them Klan boys don’t like to see us in these uniforms. They usually take the stripes and stuff off, before they lynch us.” And so it goes, suspects brought up and subsequently ruled out.
At the same time, we learn more and more about Sergeant Waters, discovering that plenty of people had good reason to feel murderous towards him, especially the soldiers under his command. As it turns out, Waters targeted black men he considered embarrassments to the race, whom he derogated as “geechies” and worse – uneducated, from the rural South, whom he saw as playing into degrading stereotypes. To Waters, they are typified by C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), who though a talented athlete and an accomplished blues singer, songwriter and guitar-player, is also a country boy from Mississippi.
The play thus astutely observes the self-hatred that institutionalized hatred can engender.
And that is just one layer in the play’s impressively nuanced exploration of the complexity of racism. To pick another example: Jerry O’Connell portrays Captain Charles Taylor, the white commander of the Negro company, who greets Captain Davenport by staring at him, telling him “you’re the first colored officer I’ve ever met” and quickly making clear he doesn’t want Davenport to lead the investigation. But we soon learn that the reason Taylor wants to remove Davenport is because Taylor believes his superiors chose Davenport precisely so that his investigation will fail, since the racism of the townsfolk and of the white officers at Fort Neal will prevent him from either catching the murderer or prosecuting him.
It’s one of the most pernicious aspects of racism that good people defer to racists, but Taylor’s motive is to catch the person who killed his sergeant, because he cares.
Leon, an 11-time Broadway director who has had his share of hits (Fences, A Raisin in the Sun, both with Denzel Washington) and misses (Holler If Ya Hear Me, Children of a Lesser God), works hard at bringing A Soldier’s Play to life, assembling an ensemble whose performances are unembellished but uniformly effective, and adding in some crowd-pleasing touches. He is not above beefcake. A literally show-stopping moment occurs near the top of Act II, when Underwood appears on stage in the process of putting on his shirt, his bare chest evoking an extended vocal demonstration of enthusiasm from the audience, a reaction that for some reason is not repeated a few scenes later during a barracks scene full of shirtless recruits.
The director also enhances the production with the blues. Nichols sings some simple, beautiful solos, accompanying himself on guitar, but most are ensemble efforts, which serve a kind of double duty. They’re certainly entertaining, but they also subtly recall the kind of music sung not just by marching soldiers but by prisoners on chain gangs and slaves in the cotton fields — suggesting that the segregated soldiers are experiencing a kind of sequel to slavery. Is it an accident that Derek McLane’s stark, dark-wood set evokes slave quarters as easily as it does barracks?
A Soldier’s Play ends in a bitter and moving irony (which was cut from the movie.) But for all the injustice presented inside the play, its existence on Broadway represents a form of justice, albeit delayed. In 2017, two other Pulitzer Prize winners – Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage – made it to Broadway later than theater aficionados might have expected. Now Charles Fuller, award-winning author of more than a dozen plays, is making his Broadway debut at the age of 80.
A Soldier’s Play is on stage at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater (227 W 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues, New York, NY 10036) through March 15, 2020.
Tickets and details
A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller; Directed by Kenny Leon. Featuring David Alan Grier as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, Blair Underwood as Captain Richard Davenport, Nnamdi Asomugha as Private First Class Melvin Peterson, Jerry O’Connell as Captain Charles Taylor, , McKinley Belcher III as Private Louis Henson, , Rob Demery as Corporal Bernard Cobb, Jared Grimes as Private Tony Smalls, Billy Eugene Jones as Private James Wilkie, Nate Mann as Lieutenant Byrd, Warner Miller as Corporal Ellis, J. Alphonse Nicholson as Private C.J. Memphis, and Lee Aaron Rosen as Captain Wilcox. Set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, fight choreographer Thomas Schall, dialect coach Kate Wilson. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.