Investigating a murder is challenging under any circumstances, but for a black Army captain looking for answers on a segregated base in 1944 Louisiana, the level of racism and hate he uncovers force him to reexamine his own identity and question his beliefs. From this core, director Kenny Leon spins a fast-paced Broadway debut for Charles Fuller's 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Soldier's Play, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre through March 15.
Blair Underwood (in photo) as Captain Richard Davenport and David Alan Grier as the murdered black officer, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, give fully committed performances, as does the entire ensemble. The story, which was considered too revolutionary for Broadway in the early 1980s and so played Off-Broadway, was inspired by Fuller's own Army experience. In a tension-filled two hours Davenport observes multi-level racism, and not just from white officers unconcerned about the shooting of a black man to begin with, and certainly not respectful of a black officer. He also learns that motive goes beyond the usual southern white hatred. Waters, whose contempt for many of his own people is as hideous as that of the white racists, has given his own men strong motives of their own.
Derek McLane's simple set consists of little more than the outline of a wooden two-level structure connected by an onstage staircase and cots that roll out for barracks scenes and away to open the action. Lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes nicely conveys the foreboding and darkness of the play. No fancy set is necessary. These two artists create the perfect atmosphere.
The knee-jerk reaction to the shooting death of a black man in the woods in the deep South had been to chalk it up to the Ku Klux Klan. That was fine with the white officers until the NAACP began calling for an inquiry and Davenport, a driven Washington-based self-described "lawyer the segregated Armed Services couldn't find a place for," is brought in.
He isn't on the base five minutes before he gets a taste for what he's up against. The first words out of the mouth of the unit's white commanding officer, Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O'Connell), are: "Forgive me for occasionally staring, Davenport. You're the first colored officer I've ever met." It gets worse from there. The racism is so ingrained that Davenport can't question a white suspect without a white officer present. This is a culture that has thrived on suppression. It will take a strong man to uncover the truth while retaining his self-worth. That is the drama that plays beside the obvious search for the guilty. Although this theme has been played out many times over the years, I found this telling to be involving and meaningful.
A Soldier's Play was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and made into a 1984 movie re-titled "A Soldier's Story."