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A CurtainUp Review
A Soldier's Play
Winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Fuller's A Soldier's Play is getting more than just a splendid revival. It is getting its long overdue first Broadway production auspiciously as we approach the start of Black History Month. Since its premiere at the Negro Ensemble Company and the many subsequent regional theatre productions (as well as the lauded 1984 film version - re-titled A Soldier's Story - that recast Denzel Washington in the role he originated), Fuller's excellent and essential play continues to be a reminder of the role segregation once played in the armed services.
Notwithstanding the value of this play's dramatized vision of life for black enlistees before President Truman signed an executive order in 1948 ending segregation in the armed services, it is the play's character-driven plot that keeps us in its thrall from start to finish.
A Soldier's Play not only unveils the deep-seated personal conflicts of its principal characters but grittily unleashes the racism, bigotry and social injustices that were part and parcel of the truth at the time. This and more is exposed during an investigation into the murder of a despised African-American officer.
Although I reviewed a production for CurtainUp in 2005, (2005 review) my memory of it is such that I wanted to see it again. The plot involves the inquiry of another African-American lawyer sent to the scene of the crime - Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944. There, the issues of social inequality racial biases have surfaced with a vengeance and a specificity that threatens to define a black regiment. In the light of current events - the active resurgence of racism and bigotry - the play's chilling and sobering message is unnervingly prescient today.
This drama builds steadily from the opening gun shots that end the life of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier), an intentionally cruel disciplinarian ashamed of his background and his race. The play focuses on the informal hearings during which both black and white witnesses describe events from the past and the present. Besides the inevitable trapping of the perpetrator and the revelations of the conflicted witnesses, the play is brutal in depicting the injustices created by segregation in the army. A program note suggests that the play was "too revolutionary" for a move to Broadway at the time.
The action, which moves swiftly and unerringly under Kenny Leon's direction (Tony Award for revival A Raisin in the Sun ) includes some beautiful and seamlessly integrated interludes of a cappella singing as well as a nifty applause-earning marching exercise. But these respectfully serve the play and effectively underscore the lives under scrutiny.
But foremost is what and how the investigating Capt. Davenport (Blair Underwood) uncovers, at first incidentally and then more acutely the seemingly contradictory personality of the victim. This is accomplished through the careful and agonizing interrogation of the suspects. One by one the enlisted men bring unexpected revelations to the already baffling complexity of his investigation.
A Soldier's Play demands the kind of unwaveringly intense, character-specific acting that it is now receiving. Underwood is outstanding as the smartly cautious but calculating Capt. Davenport. Dramatic heat is fanned when he has to uphold his rank before the arrogant and condescending Capt. Charles Taylor (an excellent Jerry O'Connell.) Taylor is convinced that the murder was committed by two white officers while the African-American soldiers believe it was an act of the Klan.
One by one, the soldiers unwittingly provide motivation for the murder. Billy Eugene Jones's performance as the jovial "brown nose" Private James Wilkie. J. Alphonse Nicholson shows us the unfortunate gullibility of the guitar-strumming ill-fated farm boy private C.J. Memphis. It is impossible to not be stunned by Nnamdi Asomugha's performance as the openly reckless and rebellious Private First Class Melvin Peterson. (the role that Denzel Washington originated).
Equally impressive are Nate Mann and Lee Aaron Rosen as two uncompromisingly bigoted and purposely offensive white officers Lieutenant Byrd and Captain Wilcox. Another memorable impression is made by Jared Grimes as the squirming sidekick Private Tony Smalls, among all of whom are under suspicion.
\Raw edged realism is key to this play and it never falters. Those being questioned provide ample evidence that there is more to the crime than anyone has initially imagined. The truth and nothing but the truth is revealed within designer Derek McLane's more than functional barracks setting that also serves as a courtroom expertly lighted by Allen Lee Hughes.
Most importantly, the plot is buoyed by director Leon's spit and polished direction. His all male corps of actors get impressively beneath the externals of some extremely complicated characters - all of whom have been credibly dramatized by a really gifted playwright. Regrettably, Fuller did not write a play of any significance following the success of A Soldier's Play
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A Soldier's Play by Charles Fuller
Directed by Kenny Leon
Cast: David Alan Grier (Sergeant Vernon C. Waters), Jerry O'Connell (Captain Charles Taylor) Rob Demery (Corporal Bernard Cobb), Nnamdi Asomugha (Private First Class Melvin Peterson), Warner Miller (Corporal Ellis), McKinley Belcher III (Private Louis Henson), Billy Eugene Jones (Private James Wilkie), Jared Grimes (Private Tony Smalls), Blair Underwood (Captain Richard Davenport), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Private C.J. Memphis), Nate Mann (Lieutenant Byrd), Lee Aaron Rosen (Captain Wilcox)
Lighting Design: Allen Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier
Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall
Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson
Stage Manager: Lark Hackshaw
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes including one 15 minute intermission
Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre 227 W. 42nd Street
Tickets: 212.719.1300 or online at roundabouttheatre.org
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00PM. After January 21, the production will play Tuesdays at 7:00PM, Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2:00PM and Sunday matinees at 3:00PM.
From 12/27/19 Opened 01/21/20 Ends Limited Engagement.
Review by Simon Saltzman on 01/15/20
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