Eugene Lee as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. Photo by Joan Marcus

A Soldier’s Play

Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

Written by:
Karen Weinstein
Share This:

A Soldier’s Play, winner of the 1981 Pulitzer and the 2020 Tony for a revival, set in the segregated army of 1944, is as fresh and relevant today as it was over 40 years ago. It may even be a more honest portrayal of race relations than could be presented in today’s era of trigger warnings and safe spaces.

While the theme is segregation and race relations in the Army and the South, the story is a whodunnit. And one’s focus is on the story while the underlying themes are ever present. Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee), a black Sergeant to a black unit, has been murdered. Captain Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis), a black lawyer, is dispatched to investigate the crime. This is Fort Neal Louisiana. Just about everyone assumes it must have been the Klan. No surprise. Not even likely to grab a headline. Davenport, however is a thorough man. He is determined to deliver a thorough investigation. As he interviews each and every member of the unit, flashbacks reveal more than just the expected issues of inter-racial tension, but intra-racial tension and inter-class strain as well. It emerges that Waters had been a brutal task master, invested in maintaining discipline and his superiority over his men. He had pulled himself up by the bootstraps, spoke without an accent, and, by God, could not tolerate less than that in others. He was personally offended by one of the men, C.J. Memphis (Sheldon D. Brown) a country boy who has sung the blues in some local clubs. Waters is offended by C.J.’s simple ways, his sparce speech and accent, his very presence. Waters is a portrayal of a man with pride and self-loathing that spills over into his relations with his world.

Charles Fuller had a masterful hand for character creation and development. No one is faultless, yet there is a human side to each. Flashbacks are a device that is often hard to follow, yet there is complete clarity in his Soldier’s Play. The structure imparted by military hierarchy can be seen as a metaphor for more general class differences too. The black privates are delegated to the most demeaning clean up tasks during the week. But come the weekend they are the stars of the base. Most had played baseball in the Negro League and every Saturday they were winning honors for the base. Maybe they would even get to play the Yankees. Who doesn’t love a sports hero when he is winning?

The stage craft compliments the script. From Derek McLane’s set design which is primarily a barebones sketch of a barracks, with the use of lighting and a few props suggests an office, the murder scene, whatever is needed. Interspersed through the production Sheldon D. Brown sings wistful fragments of C.J.’s blues and there are snippets of interpretive marching cadence by the privates as a group. Some critics have been critical of these devices (I do not think they were in the original), I felt they enhanced my involvement in the action.

Beyond the sad fact that the Ahmanson is not a great venue for spoken theater, there is so much to recommend in this production. The strong cast, headed up by Norm Lewis, overcomes much of the difficulties of the mic’d audio. A Soldier’s Play is definitely worth the reprise.
Karen Weinstein

“The Who’s Tommy” opened this spring at the Nederlander Theater in NYC in its first Broadway revival since the landmark...
The next “Hamilton?” The world premiere rock musical “Galileo”, possibly moving to Broadway, is billed as an “explosive collision of...
Actor Nathan Lane, in a Tony Award acceptance speech, points out that successful musical comedy, when its allied arts and...
Search CultureVulture