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A Soldier’s Play

Jerry O'Connell, Blair Underwood in A Soldier’s Play. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Who shot Sergeant Vernon C. Waters? Suspects were plentiful at Fort Neal, a segregated Army camp in 1944 rural Louisiana. Did the blame go to bigoted white officers? Someone in Waters’ unit? The local Ku Klux Klan, but underneath, The Soldier’s Play proves it was Waters’ heavy drinking and corrosive racial hatred that led to his murder.

In gripping flashbacks, David Alan Grier (off-Broadway, A Soldier’s Play, 1984) portrayed the complicated Sgt. Waters with an ingrained self-loathing, showing fiery pain and bitterness against everyone, including himself. He was a bully with one asset, as the tough leader of the platoon’s outstanding army baseball team. As much as the team needed him, anyone of them could have killed him – they all hated his mean spirit.

At the helm of a remarkable cast, Kenny Leon, who directed numerous Broadway shows, (Raisin in the Sun, Fences), keeps the focus on Sgt. Waters and how the other characters related to him.  They are all crisply drawn.  Nnamdi Asomugha is outstanding as an intense Private First-Class Melvin Peterson.  Others in the unit are McKinley Belcher III (Private Louis Henson), Rob Demery is Corporal Bernard Cobb, Jared Grimes (Private Tony Smalls), Billy Eugene Jones as the toadying Private James Wilkie, Nate Mann (Lieutenant Byrd) and Warner Miller as Corporal Ellis.  Notable is J. Alphonse Nicholson as Private C. J. Memphis whose singing and guitar helped invigorate the emotions.  

They live in a racial society during World War II, impatient as they wait to go to fight overseas although they already have a battle at home.

Written by Charles Fuller, A Soldier’s Play, premiered in 1981 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In this first Broadway production, it is still relevant today, a provocative murder mystery interfaced with the evils of racial prejudice.

To investigate the murder, a self-reliant black prosecutor, Captain Richard Davenport, is sent to Louisiana to solve the case. Davenport, played judiciously by Blair Underwood (A Streetcar Named Desire), arrives at the camp to meet bigotry face-to-face in the personification of a white West Pointer, Captain Taylor (Jerry O’Connell). Says Taylor, “Forgive me for occasionally staring, Davenport, you’re the first colored officer I’ve ever met…I graduated the Point…We didn’t have any Negroes at the Point.” It was challenging for Taylor to follow Davenport’s instructions in the investigation.

Determined, Underwood explores more than the KKK. He begins interviewing anyone connected with Waters, including the baseball players. As he questions the soldiers, Water’s intricate life unravels through different viewpoints.

Destroyed by disappointment, Waters blames society and himself for not reaching his personal best. He denigrates other Afro-Americans and is aware of the cultural bias between the races but also within the races themselves.

Kenny Leon heightened traditions and emotions, basing them on African experiences and blues inspired call-and-response, a mix of rap and stylized military marches.  Singing and choreography are used as soldiers move around the wooden cots.  A stark, efficient set is designed by Derek McLane and lighting is by Allen Lee Hughes.

Still relevant today, A Soldier’s Play resonates with the societal and inner destruction of bigotry and stands among the strongest theater offerings this season.

A Soldier’s Play
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre
227 - West 42nd Street. NYC
Previews: Dec. 27, 2019. Opening: Jan. 21, 2020. Closing: March 15, 2020
Running Time: One hour, 50 min. One intermission.
Cast: Jerry O'Connell, Blair Underwood, David Alan Grier, Nnamdi Asomugha McKinley Belcher, Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Lee Aaron Rosen
Playwright: Charles Fuller
Directed: Kenny Leon

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors, January 2020

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