'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood and Billy Eugene Jones in 'A Soldier's Play'
A gripping depiction of the cancerous war inside.
3/15/2020

David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood head the cast in director Kenny Leon's Broadway premiere of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer-winning 1981 race drama set on a Louisiana Army base during World War II.

The last few years have seen an explosion of formally and thematically bold work by African American dramatists addressing race-related issues from stinging contemporary perspectives — playwrights like Dominique Morisseau, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Robert O'Hara, Aleshea Harris and Antoinette Nwandu, just for starters. So the belated arrival on Broadway of Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner, A Soldier's Play, risks looking like a throwback to more old-fashioned, conventional drama. Yet in the hands of director Kenny Leon and a terrific ensemble, this period piece about corrosive self-loathing bred out of institutionalized racism remains powerful theater.

Playing Capt. Richard Davenport, an Army officer assigned by D.C. to investigate the murder of an NCO in charge of a company of black enlisted men on a segregated Louisiana military base in 1944, Blair Underwood lets out a howl of despair near the end of the play as he laments "the madness of race in America." His impotent rage sadly has as much currency today as when the action takes place — years before the Civil Rights movement would herald overdue change but in fundamental ways fail to root out the inequality that festers still in many parts of the country.

The structural bones of a procedural investigation thriller laced with cinematic flashbacks might be timeworn after years of movies and TV, but Leon invigorates the drama with interludes of song and movement that draw a blistering line connecting the men serving their country during wartime to those working as slave or prison chain-gang labor. Those stylistic flourishes — the first of them emerging out of darkness like increasingly unquiet voices from the past in the production’s arresting opening — add spiritual heft to what is essentially a well-made whodunit.

Derek McLane's evocative single set is a two-tiered representation of a wooden Army barracks, with Allen Lee Hughes' expert lighting filtering through its slats to provide an atmosphere of mystery and claustrophobia that suggests the obstruction of truth.

Fuller wastes no time showing the crime; heavily intoxicated Technical Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier) is down on his knees, bitterly laughing as he slurs out the words "They'll still hate you! They still hate you…" before an unseen man puts two fatal bullets in him. While having the black enlisted men of C Company searched for concealed weapons, the white commanding officer, Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O'Connell), warns them that there will be no reprisals against rednecks from the town, feeding the general assumption that Waters' death was a Klan killing. To make sure the soldiers stay in line, their barracks is surrounded by military police with rifles.

The arrival of Davenport, a briskly confident lawyer whose job in the segregated Armed Forces he describes as "policing colored troops," initially ruffles Capt. Taylor, who admits with clumsy bluntness during their first encounter that he finds the unfamiliar notion of a black officer both novel and uncomfortable. Davenport is unfazed by Taylor's casual racism and also by his assertion that any arrest of a white murderer by a black investigating officer will not hold up. The shifting dynamics of mutual mistrust and forced cooperation between these two officers provides one thread of Fuller's examination of the complexities of the racial divide, even at identical levels of military authority.

As Davenport's investigation progresses, the distinctive personalities of each of the enlisted men emerge both in individual interviews and flashback re-enactments. They range from obsequious Pvt. James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones), sucking up to Waters at every opportunity, through cocky, imposingly built Cpl. Bernard Cobb (Rob Demery), fearfully insecure Pvt. Tony Smalls (Jared Grimes) and quietly contemptuous PFC Melvin Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha). Most of these men were placed together by the Army out of the Negro League and have continued to thrash their white competition in baseball games on the base.

At the same time, a disturbing portrait coalesces of Waters as an overbearing hardass in a layered performance that will surprise anyone who knows the accomplished Grier primarily as a comedic actor. The NCO long ago realized that no matter how well he plays the white military establishment's game he will never overcome the prejudices against him, and that gnawing awareness fuels the drama’s most acrid undercurrents. It also dictates the harsh attitudes that have earned him the hatred of his men, examples of which are explored throughout the play.

The most harrowing of these involves guitar-playing Pvt. C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson, in the production's most affecting performance), whose sleepy-eyed smile and lack of education made Waters tag him as an indolent clown. The tech sergeant's scathing dismissal of Southern black men like C.J. as confirmation of the white man's stereotype of "lazy, shiftless Negroes" holding back other African Americans is part of a legacy of self-hatred passed down by Waters' father. It's hammered home most brutally in a seething monologue recalling his time serving in France during the First War.

Fuller artfully spreads suspicion among the enlisted men while also extending it to two white officers, Lt. Byrd (Nate Mann) and Capt. Wilcox (Lee Aaron Rosen), who admit to interacting with Waters on the night he was killed. Wilcox is forthright and diplomatic while Byrd makes no effort to hide his racist scorn, bristling even at being interrogated by a black man like Davenport. The character as drawn feels true to the period, if somewhat close to ugly caricature.

The specific kind of divisive resentment within African American communities that Fuller examines here has largely been supplanted today by more informed and balanced awareness of societal factors like the school-to-prison pipeline and inner-city crime and drug problems. But even as a history lesson, the drama remains relevant in its reflections on inherent racial injustices. Without altering the text, Leon and his uniformly fine cast subtly broaden the lens to suggest the stigmas and conflicts of black Americans across the decades. Even if Fuller's plotting, loosely inspired by Melville's Billy Budd, now seems slightly mechanical, the steadily building drama remains gripping, and its portrait of the sacrifices of men for a country that dishonors them still scalds.

The play has a historical association with top African American actors, some from before they were famous. The original 1981 Negro Ensemble Company production featured Adolph Caesar as Waters, Denzel Washington as Peterson — both of whom reprised their roles in Norman Jewison's 1984 screen version, retitled A Soldier's Story, in which Grier played Cobb early in his career — and Samuel L. Jackson as Pvt. Louis Henson, a sharp-eyed observer suspicious of authority, ably played here by McKinley Belcher III. A taut 2005 off-Broadway revival featured Taye Diggs as Davenport and Anthony Mackie as Peterson.

Leon's muscular production makes a solid case for the play, if not as a top-tier classic then at the very least as a stirring indictment of the cancer of racism. And his ensemble channels the frictions and frustrations of a simmering cauldron of masculinity, its hierarchy cruelly enforced along lines of rank and skin color.

The entire cast works as a cohesive unit, though three of them merit special mention: Grier is riveting, both victim and perpetrator of demeaning treatment; Underwood's matinee-idol looks and charisma make him a fine fit for the self-assured Davenport, who peels back his professional detachment only in his final words (the actor's brief shirtless appearance drew loud whoops of delight from the audience, forcing him to wait before resuming his lines); and former NFL All-Pro Asomugha makes a promising Broadway debut in the key supporting role of Peterson.

Venue: American Airlines Theatre, New York
Cast: David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jerry O'Connell, McKinley Belcher III, Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Lee Aaron Rosen
Director: Kenny Leon
Playwright: Charles Fuller
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Dede Ayite
Lighting designer: Allen Lee Hughes
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Fight choreographer: Thomas Schall
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company