Out of the dark, we hear a swell of rhythmic singing, stomping and clapping, creating an impression that falls between a prison work song and slaves’ lament. The device is employed intermittently throughout this production (sometimes accompanied by synchronized movement and call-outs) driving home associations while also easing passage between harsh, dramatic scenes. What some will see as pandering, others find salve.
Set in 1944, at a segregated Army base of “tan yanks” in Fort Neal, Louisiana, the play is a well wrought whodunit, compelling to the end. Dialogue arrives fast and naturalistic. Message is never heavy-handed, but rather inherent in story.
When black Sergeant Vernon C. Walters (David Alan Grier who played a private in the first production) is found murdered in the woods, it’s generally assumed The Klu Klux Klan are responsible. The troop knows better. If the Klan had shot Walters, they would’ve ripped off his insignia and stripes.
The dead man showed every sign of hating his own race, aspiring to white behavior and materialism, aggressively baiting those he felt shone a poor light on negroes. Most of the men disliked him, many held an abiding grudge. White base captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell, too lightweight) ambivalently attempts an investigation only to be shut down by a colonel who wants no adverse publicity.
A month later, he has become an irritant to higher-ups. Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood), a black lawyer, is sent to investigate. Taylor immediately dismisses (and denigrates) his peer, stating in no uncertain terms that a negro will never get to the truth at a southern base. This is the first “colored” officer he’s ever met. Old prejudice dies hard. The two lock horns. Undaunted, aware that his superiors consider the assignment Siberia, Davenport is determined to find the murderer. Selected use of cool sunglasses is inspired.
Davenport interviews the men who relate experience with Walters in flashbacks. Guarded facts and feelings are exposed with history. Two white soldiers are indicated. Taylor is an opponent, then, ostensibly, on Davenport’s “side.” It’s as difficult to guess the killer as it is to assign limited blame.
A Soldier’s Play “…speaks to both blacks and whites without ever patronizing either group. Mr. Fuller writes characters of both races well – and he implicates both in the murder of Sergeant Waters.” November 1981-Frank Rich, then theater critic of The New York Times. Originally performed by The Negro Ensemble Company, the beautifully written, Pulitzer Prize Winning play is only now receiving a Broadway premiere. It’s unfortunate that so much of what’s depicted remains relevant.
Director Kenny Leon gives his large cast varied and credible stage business. His sense of composition/use of staging area is artful. Singing and movement emerge fluently with only one particularly dancy march sticking out as blatantly choreographed and oddly lighthearted. Verbal confrontation is effective; a few of the usually reliable Thomas Schall’s fights miss the mark. Pacing is excellent. Leon’s ending lands like a blow.
A few actors show less interior character development. The each-in-his-own-orbit take may be intended to depict defensive behavior, but… Talking to and not at each other more consistently would serve.
Of the men, J. Alphonse Nicholson (Private C.J. Menphis, a marvelously conceived character) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Private First Class Melvin Peterson) stand out.
Blair Underwood offers a convincing Davenport, intellectual, stubborn, measured, precise. Our embarrassing audience whistles and hoots appreciatively when the actor appears in an open shirt. What is wrong with these people?! The actor handles it with great aplomb. Focus is complete. A visceral howl towards the end of the play releases cumulative withholding of a character who knows he’s caught in an ugly, dysfunctional machine. We feel it.
Also wonderful, David Alan Grier is about as far from his reputation with comedy as you can get. His Sergeant Walters is palpably despicable. Provocation and violence ring true. The actor vibrates with fury, especially when unexpectedly subjugated. Drunk scenes are pitch perfect.
Derek McLane’s all encompassing, slatted, two level barracks takes us out of period representation into the universal. Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes makes the most of this without being obtrusive. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier ably carries dialogue and enhances the resonance of singing.