Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending the Broadway show A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller at the American Airlines Theatre. Inspired by Fuller’s experiences in the U.S. Army, it first appeared off-Broadway in 1981 and won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The play takes place during World War II in the 1940s on a segregated army base in Louisiana. David Alan Grier plays Vernon Waters, a black Sergeant whose murder is being investigated by Richard Davenport played by Blair Underwood. Davenport constantly bumps heads with Charles Taylor played by Jerry O’Connell. Both men rank as Captains, but Taylor, who fancies himself an ally to black folks lets his racism slip when he has trouble accepting Davenport as an officer or an equal, and attempts to treat him like a subordinate. Davenport never caves.
Fun fact: Blair Underwood was the keynote commencement speaker for my graduation from Emerson College.
The play opens with Waters stumbling to the middle of the stage in a drunken stupor shouting and laughing “they will still hate you” before he’s dropped to his knees by a gunshot, then falls on his back with another shot. The rest of the play goes back and forth between the present investigation and the past as Davenport interviews the officers whom Waters commanded. Davenport will not write off the murder as the work of the Klan.
Taylor asserts that he wants to help find the culprit but does not think Davenport should lead the investigation because he’s black, or colored as was the term back then. Not only will white soldiers not want to answer Davenport’s questions, but under the law he does not have the authority to question or arrest white men. Sure enough Davenport meets more resistance when, in the presence of Taylor, he interviews two white suspects, whom he outranks. They begrudgingly cooperate. One refuses to salute.
Davenport’s investigation reveals Waters’ tarnished reputation. His hate towards some of his own kind is unsettling and as harmful as the hate spewed by whites towards blacks. Waters discriminated and abused power based on his assumptions of people’s worthiness stemming from their perceived intelligence, “proper” speech and “respectable” demeanor. Through Waters it’s illustrated how black people can be our own worst enemies and cause divisiveness.
A Soldier’s Play is powerful as it reminds us that though black men—black people—are an integral part to U.S. history, including fighting in the wars, they were and continue to be treated as less than second class citizens. During Davenport’s investigation it’s revealed that most of the men: Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha), Corporal Bernard Cobb (Rob Demery), Corporal Ellis (Warner Miller), Private Louis Henson (McKinley Belcher III), Private James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones), and Private Tony Small (Jared Grimes) knew each other from playing in the Negro League. They were an undefeated team on the base. They were lauded for their sports record, yet assigned the menial jobs on the base. Much of their time is spent wondering if they will ever get to see real action over in Europe.
Sitting in the audience watching A Soldier’s Play was quite an experience. It was a mixed crowd. I took pleasure and took part in some of the choruses of “mmm hmms” when a character said something that rang true for us black folks. There were times when the discomfort of other audience members seemed almost tangible and there was some shifting in seats. There were several uses of the word nigga, negro(s) and colored. Very un-politically correct for these times even though we know they’re still being uttered behind closed doors, I’m sure.
Favorite scene: when Blair Underwood took the stage with an open shirt. His brown melanin skin and chiseled abs were on full display. Because it was the opening of a scene, there was applause, but it lingered to show appreciation of the display. Underwood seemed caught off guard at first and had to wait out the 10-15 second applause break before he could begin his monologue as he dressed. Before doing so, “Bravo!” escaped my lips. Sorry, not sorry. His beauty aside, Underwood does an excellent job as the captain who solves the case.
I was thoroughly impressed with both David Alan Grier and Jerry O’Connell in their dramatic roles. I’m used to seeing them in comedic roles. Grier did provide a moment a levity and laughter reminiscent of his In Living Color days. When I scanned the playbill, I was surprised to see Kerry Washington’s hubby Nnamdi Asomugha as part of the cast. Kudos to him and the whole cast for putting on a spectacular show. They deserved the standing ovation at the end of the show.