A Soldier's Play
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Broadway review by Adam Feldman
A Soldier’s Play probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1981 drama begins with a shooting and follows what looks like a conventional murder-mystery track. African-American officer Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) meets, one by one, with black soldiers at a segregated Louisiana Army base in 1944, hoping to find out who killed Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier). The dialogue is functional but rarely lyrical. Much of the plot is revealed in flashbacks; at one point, there is a flashback within a flashback.
As directed by Kenny Leon in its first Broadway production, however, the play is sturdy instead of creaky: Like the bare wood of Derek McLane’s set, it gets the job done, and it provides a platform for powerful moments and performances. The steel-jawed Underwood, sympathetic yet commanding, provides a stoic axis for the production; Davenport, often wearing sunglasses, keeps his cool, even when his rank unsettles his white colleagues and subordinates. (Jerry O’Connell, playing a conflicted white captain, looks like he’s about to burst a blood vessel throughout.) Grier is Underwood’s equal and opposite: He brings rage and pathos to the role of the cruel Waters, “split by the madness of race in America,” who is twisted with contempt for other black men—especially Southern ones—whom he considers an embarrassment to the race. (He dismisses them as “geechies” and worse.) The play is in many ways his tragedy. As Private C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a guitar-playing “Mississippi boy” for whom Waters has a special disdain, kindly observes: “Any man ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain.”
Leon’s direction emphasizes the beauty of the men’s blackness. At the start of the play and during transitions between scenes, the servicemen—played by Nnamdi Asomugha, Rob Demery, Billy Eugene Jones, McKinley Belcher III, Warner Miller and tap dancer Jared Grimes—raise their voices into rich, deep blues. Their athletic pulchritude is on manifest display, and that extends to Underwood, as well; when the 55-year-old actor reveals a flash of chest flesh at the start of the second act, the show stops for a good 30 seconds of appreciative hooting. This beauty serves as an implicit refutation of Waters’s self-loathing, and makes the gut punch of the play’s finale all the more affecting. It’s a bullet of a play, and it hits its targets.
American Airlines Theatre (Broadway). By Charles Fuller. Directed Kenny Leon. With David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Jerry O’Connell, Nnamdi Asomugha. Running time: 1hr 55mins. One intermission.