A Solidier's Play
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Where were you in ’82? If you were lucky enough to be sitting in Theatre Four watching the Off-Broadway premiere of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” you might have thought you were witnessing the emergence of the next huge Broadway hit, a playwright who would become a regular fixture on American stages, and some relatively unknown actors who would go on to huge careers.
As it happens, while “A Soldier’s Play” picked up numerous awards that year, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, you would have only been correct on the last count. (The cast included such “no-names” as Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson.) Fuller moved on to writing mostly for film and television. And somewhat shockingly, it’s taken 38 years for this first-class work to finally make it to the Great White Way – specifically, the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater. Fortunately, Kenny Leon’s riveting, must-see production proves to be more than worth the wait.
The play – part whodunit and part social commentary -- is still a bit messy in its structure, especially in its use of flashbacks and narration. But that’s of little consequence; its core story about a segregated Army unit during World War II where the conflicts between white people and black people, and, more importantly, the tensions between some black people themselves ends up being as explosive as a hand grenade. Worse yet, the story remains painfully relevant in 2020; indeed, four decades ago, one might have not expected that our country would now be mired in era of such harrowing divisiveness.
Leon has directed the piece, which takes place on Derek McLane’s massive wooden set, with supreme fluidity. Moreover, he has, unsurprisingly, cast the show splendidly. David Alan Grier (who appeared in other roles in previous incarnations of the show) is stupendous as the murder victim, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, a man battling both his own self-loathing and a misguided desire to “rid” the Army (and perhaps the world) of fellow Negros who he feels are jeopardizing any chance of racial equality through their behavior. Grier holds nothing back, even in a couple of slightly overwrought “drunk” scenes, and his deep commitment to this role makes the audience understand even his most heinous actions.
He’s well matched (though they never technically share a scene) by the ever-charismatic (and remarkably fit) Blair Underwood as Captain Richard Davenport, the by-the-book military lawyer sent to investigate Waters’ death. Not content to settle for the easy answer (the KKK did it), the morally upright Davenport lets nothing – and no one, including the unit’s often combative white commanding officer Charles Taylor (an effective Jerry O’Connell) – stand in his way in his quest for the truth. (And yes, Underwood’s Davenport CAN handle the truth).
The murder suspects are a relatively small group: the six enlisted Black men under Waters’ command and two white officers who had an altercation with Waters on the night of his death. And even if you’re likely to figure out who the culprit is before he’s revealed, the true pleasure of the play is watching the brilliant miniaturist portraits of these men sketched by Fuller brought to life by a superb ensemble (including Nnamdi Asomugha, McKinley Belcher III, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones and J. Alphonse Nicholson), each of whom creates a full-bodied character in just a few brushstrokes.
General Sherman told us “War Is Hell.” Jean-Paul Sartre told us “Hell Is Other People.” Charles Fuller knew both statements could be simultaneously true!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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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
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036