Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 21, 2020
A Soldier's Play by Charles Fuller. Directed by Kenny Leon. Set design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Dede Ayite. Lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Fight Choreographer Thomas Schall. Dialect Coach Kate Wilson. Cast: David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jerry O'Connell, McKinley Belcher III, Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, J. Alphonse Nicholson, and Lee Aaron Rosen.
On one level, you could categorize the plot of A Soldier's Play as a military whodunit. An Army sergeant (David Alan Grier) is shot and killed while heading back to the barracks after a night of drinking, and an investigation follows, with unexpected twists and red herrings popping up at every turn.
But very little of what ensues adheres to the clichéd pattern. This is a time of war, specifically World War II, and even though the play takes place stateside, tensions run battlefield high. The military base where the story unfolds sits in the heart of redneck Louisiana, and the dead sergeant, the investigating officer, and the men under the victim's command are all black soldiers, assigned to serve together in the still-segregated Army. The highest priority of the upper echelon is to keep a lid on things until everyone involved can be shipped out.
To this end, the task of running the investigation is given to Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood), one of the few black officers on the scene. He has been assigned to the case with the expectation that he will dig very shallowly, file a report about an unfortunate incident, and quietly move along. But that's wishful thinking on the part of those who arranged for him to take on that role. Davenport is determined to get at the whole truth, regardless of where it leads. So "whodunit," yes, but "whydunit" as well. And therein lies the crux of the play.
Still, the central character is not Davenport, but the dead man, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. He gets the first spoken line of the play, drunkenly shouting out the words "They'll still hate you!" as he falls to his ground. Yet his presence is felt throughout the play, in flashback, as Davenport seeks to decipher their meaning.
In Sergeant Waters, the playwright has masterfully upturned and transcended the detective story trope. David Alan Grier mesmerizes in his performance, giving us as psychologically complex a character as you are ever likely to encounter on stage. Through him, the play is able to richly examine its central theme of the pervasive destructive force that stems from both overt and covert racism. Where Davenport has learned to deal with these by fully understanding and making use of the regulated structures of the military, Waters has been stumbling and barely making it through. Until, in the end, he no long can.
The production is wonderfully supported by the rest of the men in the company, the lowly privates and corporals in the barracks, each of them coming fully to life as individuals. One of them, the popular guitar-picking C. J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), bears the brunt of Waters's ire for seemingly representing every stereotype about Southern black men the sergeant has learned to despise. It is through the sergeant's treatment of C. J. that the play moves inexorably into the heart of tragedy.
Much credit should go to Allen Lee Hughes' shadowy lighting design and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, and to the interpolated vocal rhythms and stylized marching that bring to mind images of slavery or of a chain gang. Through and through, this is an exceedingly well-thought-out and riveting production.