Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Soldier's Play
Also see Christine's recent review of The Comedy of Errors
Fuller's play (which is fictional but based on the troubling reality of racial division both in 1944 and today) is, ultimately, a kind of procedural. After the murder of a Black sergeant at a base in the deep South, the powers that be appoint a Black captain, Richard Davenport (played by Norm Lewis), to try to identify the killer, and we see him as he questions everyone who might conceivably be a suspect. Supplementing his interrogations, we flash back to some of the key moments that led up to the killing, cleverly intertwined with the questioning itself.
The first Black officer anyone in this company has ever seen, Davenport is greeted with excitement by the Black enlisted men but skepticism by their commanding officer, Captain Charles Taylor (sympathetically played by William Connell). Taylor's reaction stems not from any overt racism–though he is open about his surprise at seeing Davenport–but from his conviction that two white officers under his command are responsible. He believes that Davenport was appointed mainly to protect these two, as no high-ranking Southern officers would support the prosecution of white men for killing a Black man.
Lewis' demeanor of authority quickly makes it clear that he will brook no interference, and his booming, sonorous voice easily cuts through any and all nonsense as he interviews the soldiers one by one to find the truth. Unlike Taylor, he rejects the easy Klan-inspired conclusion that the white officers are guilty. While retaining a healthy dose of skepticism regarding these men, one of whom is such a blatant racist that he uses the N-word many times throughout the show, he thinks something else is afoot.
Eugene Lee plays the dead man, Sgt. Waters, in flashbacks that prove him to be the kind of Black man who places the blame for the prejudice against his race entirely upon its shoulders. Like a military-minded Booker T. Washington, he insists that the path to acceptance is to be exemplary. He staunchly holds to the belief that any "Negro" who, by action, appearance, or lack of education, feeds the myth of the "lesser" race, is not to be tolerated. When a popular new recruit, C.J. Memphis (Sheldon D. Brown), falls short of his ideal, he engenders a powerful dislike for the sweet, innocent soul in the huge, athletic body who entertains his fellow soldiers on his guitar. His mistreatment of Memphis is just the most noticeable way in which he uses his stripes to attack and demean anyone in his charge who might in any way debase the Black race in the eyes of the Whites.
Naturally, he is such a detestable man that there are all sorts of candidates beyond the racist white officers who might have wanted him dead.
I sat there throughout thinking that, despite a set by Derek McLane that manages to divide the CIBC's stage into smaller playing areas, things get lost in the huge Broadway-style theatre. As my husband is in a wheelchair, I watched from the back of the orchestra wanting to feel the emotional power of the subject matter. At times, such as Davenport's questioning of the White officers–wonderfully played by Chattan Mayes Johnson and Matthew Goodrich–and the flashback showing how they did abuse Waters, that power makes everything else disappear. More often, though, I felt that I was watching a TV production that had no close-ups. Despite Leon's staging, great acting, and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes that does its best to focus us on small portions of the set, the 1800-seat CIBC swallows the most personal moments of this intense play. I kept imagining seeing it down the street at the Goodman, where those personal moments feel much closer. Ah well.
A Soldier's Play is an important work that evokes a time and place in 20th century American history that those of us who are white don't often see depicted and, perhaps, don't know much about. Instead of taking the easy road, Fuller focuses on Waters and the ugliness and nastiness he represents, illustrating that, wherever it comes from, racism is a painful sore on the body of humanity. The CIBC may not be the best place to see this play, but it is one that is well worth seeing.
A Soldier's Play runs through April 16, 2023, at CIBC Theatre, W Monroe Street, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit www.broadwayinchicago.com/show/a-soldiers-play/. For more information on the tour, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/a-soldiers-play-tour/.