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A CurtainUp Review
A Soldier's Play by Elyse SommerGiven the integration in today's armed forces and the status of retired general and still-possible future presidential candidate Colin Powell, a play about racism in the World War II armed forces may seem too dated to warrant a revival. Not so.
History, forcefully dramatized, is never dated. Already a slice-of-history when it opened in 1981, A Soldier's Play is even more powerful seen through the lengthening shadow of time. What's more, it remains a gripping who-dunit and this season's newcomer to the not-for-profit Off-Broadway theater scene, The Valiant Theatre Company, is to be commended for bringing it back, and doing so with a generally fine cast and well-staged production. One can only hope that it will run to full house during its limited run (closing date is December 8th).
We still remember being knocked out by the original production in the very same Theatre Four where the revival is playing. The play won a Pulitzer Prize for its author, Charles Fuller and helped to catapult Denzel Washington who played Private First Class Melvin Peterson, to stardom. And seeing this revival in the very same theater that housed its original producer, the Negro Ensemble Company, we were knocked out again. The story of a murder investigation in a segregated Louisiana Army camp is in the best tradition of a legal thriller that not only unravels the who, why and what of the killing, but exposes the devastating effects of racism and self hatred on one man and all those around him .
After the usual World War II Glenn Miller swing sound, the opening still jolts you out of your seat. The climax, still comes with a saddening and inevitable shock. Felix E. Cochren's sand-colored, bare bones wooden-crate-plus-table-and-chair set and Dennis Parichy's lighting serve the action and actors well. Of the cast of twelve, the evening belongs very much to the seven enlisted men. Wood Harris, as Private First Class Melvin Peterson, Keith Randolph Smith as the Private who's lost his sergeant's stripes and Danny Johnson as the Billy Budd-like C.J. Memphis, are especially outstanding. Geoffrey C. Ewing is more than creditable as Captain Richard Davidson. Jonathan Walker's portrayal of the West Pointer who develops a reluctant working relationship with the first black lawyer and office he's ever come in contact with, is less satisfying and assured. The two other white officers are okay, but not outstanding. The biggest cast disappointment came from Albert Hall's Sergeant Walters. He simply did not bring the called for fire and pain to the role of a man torn apart by self-hatred.
Director Clinton Turner Davis keeps everybody on cue though there are a few missteps which will probably go unnoticed by anyone who's never been in the army. As a point of fact, however, when an army man salutes and leaves he must step off on his left foot as several of the actors did NOT. Nitpicking aside, the original music that's been added to the Valiant production, performed by Jerome Preston Bates (harmonica) and Ron Riley (guitar) is a pleasant enhancement.
Those unable to get to the play and even those who do, may want to check out the video cassette version, of the 1984 movie version. Re-titled A Soldier's Story and featuring the original Negro Ensemble cast, it is very much a play-on-film, rather than so many jazzed-up play adaptations.