Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
A Soldier's PlayNational Tour
Also see Arty's recent reviews of Hello, Dolly!, The Daughter of the Regiment, and Blues for an Alabama Sky
In an unusual move for an acclaimed but hardly commercial play, Roundabout has sent its production on a national tour. To the great fortune of Twin Cities audiences, the Broadway @the Ordway series, an arm of Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, snagged a spot on that tour. A Soldier's Play is now running, this week only. Rather than at the Ordway Center, it was booked to play the historic F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, known primarily to many as the longtime home of Minnesota Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." The Fitz, as it is called by locals, is a lovely and cozy venue that more closely replicates the experience of seeing the play in a Broadway playhouse than were it at the capacious Ordway.
Fuller's play is bracingly crisp. Kenny Leon, director of the Broadway production, stayed on to direct the touring company, which he does with spit and polish. A Soldier's Play takes place in spring 1944, set in Fort Neal, a fictional army camp in the very true Jim Crow and Klan-ridden state of Louisiana of that era. The U.S. Army was still segregated, so all the lower ranking men at Fort Neal are Black, though the high-ranking officers are white. The play opens with Sergeant Waters, a Black man, stumbling, drunk and ranting, before being gunned down by an off-stage shooter. Captain Taylor, the white commander at Fort Neal, calls for an investigation, but is apoplectic when the investigator who arrives is a Black man, Captain Davenport–a Howard University Law School graduate and Taylor's equal. Davenport is determined to take full charge of the case despite Taylor's insistence that he withdraw in favor of a white officer. Taylor's rationale is that, presuming the killer to be a white man, no court in the state will accept the case made by a Black man against him. Then again, Taylor admits he is himself not used to the idea of an "educated Negro."
The soldiers who'd been under Sergeant Waters command have a warm brotherhood, much of it based on their troop baseball team, which has won so many games, it's on track to play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. However, there was not much love for Waters. As Davenport interviews each of the men, we see Waters as a harsh overlord, berating the soldiers and pushing them to the edge of what they can stand. Waters believes that the only way for the Black man to get ahead is to push himself and is thus obsessed with weeding out any Black men he considers unsuitable for that task, "fools," as he calls them. Any slip can make a man a "fool" in Waters' eyes. All the while, the soldiers chomp at the bit to leave the dreary routines of Fort Neal and be sent into combat, to fight the "Nazis and the Japs." As one of the men declares, "I hope we get lucky enough to get shipped out of this hell hole and into the war!"
Captain Taylor attempts to shut down Captain Davenport's investigation, but in every instance, Davenport prevails. In the course of his interviews, we come to know each of the men as individuals, and to see the manipulations that can undermine solidarity and turn one man, even a "good" man, against another. The play is a cry for coming together and recognizing the source oppression, rather than blaming its victims. It is also a chilling whodunnit, as Davenport bit by bit pieces together the evidence and motives that might have led to Water's murder.
The cast is impeccable, up and down the line. Broadway and television actor Norm Lewis portrays Captain Davenport with towering dignity and self-respect. Lewis has Emmy, Grammy and Tony nominations to his credit, including for his starring role opposite Audra McDonald in a Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess, and in 2014 became the first African American actor to don the Phantom's mask in the long-running Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera. His performance is sublime, and to top it off, we get a brief sampling of his stunning vocal abilities.
Eugene Lee is a formidable presence as Sergeant Waters. Though smaller in stature than most of the men under his command, his bearing towers over them. Lee leads us to believe that Waters could spit nails and not stop to rinse his mouth before carrying on. Lee played one of the soldiers, Corporal Bernard Cobb, in the original Off-Broadway production, and in a long career, has come full circle to take on the meaty role of Waters, the same role for which David Alan Grier won his Tony Award.
The entire ensemble of twelve actors is excellent, and I could heap praise on each one, but will here offer special recognition to Tarik Lowe as Private First Class Melvin Peterson, perhaps the deepest thinker among the soldiers; Sheldon D. Brown as Private C. J Memphis, a tender hearted, though somewhat slow-witted country boy who sings and plays a wicked delta blues; Howard W. Overshown as Private James Wilkie, a man struggling and making compromises to regain a large slice of lost dignity; and William Connell as the white nemesis, Captain Taylor, who may be guided by total bigotry or by a genuine desire to obtain justice, or a complicated mix of both.
Tony and Emmy award winner Derek McLane has fashioned a highly functional set that provides an evocative image of the drab barracks and base offices, penned in by washed out horizontal wooden slats. Dede Ayite's costumes aptly reflect varying ranks of army personnel, and also baseball uniforms. Allen Lee Hughes' lighting and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design add to the total effect of creating an authentic time and place. Fight scenes bear considerable realism, with credit to fight choreographer Thomas Schall.
A Soldier's Play was a long time coming to Broadway. It premiered Off-Broadway in 1981 at the highly esteemed Negro Ensemble Company where it ran 468 performances. It received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in addition to the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, and the Obie Award for Distinguished Ensemble Performance. The 1984 movie version, retitled A Soldier's Story, was Oscar nominated for Best Film, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (for Adolph Caesar, repeating his performance as Waters from the Off-Broadway run). Clearly, this is a top-drawer property that we might expect to often find its way to our stages, and there have been a couple of Off-Broadway revivals and regional theater productions since its initial launch. With its 2020 Broadway production, the play has received a much deserved boost in becoming known among a wider circle of current theater-goers.
If it is not too late by the time you read this, and you can possibly manage it, I strongly recommend you find your way to one of the remaining performances of A Soldier's Play, being given a production that would be hard for any theater company, anywhere, to top.
A Soldier's Play runs through February 12, 2023, at the Fitzgerald Theatre, 10 East Exchange Street, Saint Paul MN . Tickets: $43.00 - $96.40. Rush tickets for students and educators, two tickets per valid ID, at the box office, 30 minutes before curtain time, cash only. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-4222 or visit ordway.org/events/a-soldiers-play/. For more information on the tour, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/a-soldiers-play-tour/.
Playwright: Charles Fuller; Director: Kenny Leon; Scenic Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Dede Ayite; Lighting Design: Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice and Dialect Coach: Kate Wilson; Movement Consultant: Jared Grimes; Military Consultant: Christopher Wolfe; Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA and Maureen Kelleher, CSA; Production Stage Manager: John M. Atherlay, Stage Manager: RL Campbell.
Cast: Will Adams (Corporal Bernard Cobb), Sheldon D. Brown (Private C.J. Memphis), Malik Esoj Childs (Private Tony Smalls), William Connell (Captain Charles Taylor), Alex Michael Givens (Corporal Ellis), Matthew Goodrich (Captain Wilcox), Chattan Mayes Johnson (Lieutenant Byrd), Eugene Lee (Sergeant Vernon C. Waters), Norm Lewis (Captain Richard Davenport), Branden Davon Lindsay (Private Louis Henson), Tarik Lowe (Private First Class Melvin Peterson), Howard W. Overshown (Private James Wilkie).