A SOLDIER’S PLAY is a solid and well-structured play by Charles Fuller that explores the deep-seated roots of American racism. Centered on a Black regiment in 1944 Fort Neal, Louisiana, the play takes the form of a murder investigation when Captain Richard Davenport arrives on the scene following the death of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. While Fuller’s 1981 play is no doubt an indictment of the racist systems embedded in the American military—and the country as a whole—the piece now feels prescient, rather than revelatory. I imagine that it must have been quite radical when it debuted over forty years ago, but now it reads like a reinforcement of the truth. It’s an effective one, and audiences who enjoy the procedural format will appreciate the play’s series of interviews and flashbacks. Director Kenny Leon’s production keeps it moving at a brisk pace, but neither material nor staging are groundbreaking.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY mainly becomes fodder for some fantastic performances. While audiences may be used to seeing Norm Lewis in musicals and operas, he takes on the role of Captain Davenport with equal command. Brilliantly, the production incorporates a good amount of singing and gives Lewis a chance to show off his skills. As Captain Davenport, Lewis easily goes toe-to-toe with the bigoted Captain Taylor, played with precise command and snide by William Connell. While the Black soldiers are thrilled to see a man that looks like them in a position of power, Captain Taylor is hell-bent on putting a halt to Captain Davenport’s investigation. Of course, he doesn’t succeed. While Captain Davenport seems proud of his rank and identity, Sergeant Waters is mired in self-loathing. Eugene Lee portrays the Sergeant as embittered and in the depths of his despair shifting from moments of merciless command among the troops to moments of vulnerable drunken stupor. Lee brings out all the layers of the character; Sergeant Waters is hard to like but still cuts an empathetic figure. I was also thrilled to see Chicago-based actor Sheldon D. Brown as Private C.J. Memphis, a soldier and a baseball player. Last seen in CHOIR BOY at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Brown is a tremendously winsome performer. He displays both gentleness and power in his performance, and it’s a treat to see him sing and play guitar in this production.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY is a reminder of the enduring cycles of racism that take root in American culture, and the procedural format gives the play a nice structure. It’s evident that Fuller completely understood how to put together a taut, timely play. While the production doesn’t break new ground, Leon ensures that it’s a great showcase for the ensemble as audiences watch the investigation unfold.
The Broadway In Chicago engagement of the national tour of A SOLDIER’S PLAY runs through April 16, 2023 at the CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe. Visit broadwayinchicago.com.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com