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New York City Theater

"A Soldier’s Play"
American Airlines Theater

“They still hate you” are the last words of drunken Army Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier), fatally shot twice by people or peoples unknown. So begins Roundabout’s stirring revival of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play,” which takes place in 1944.

Whodunit? Was it the KKK? Was it one or more of the local rednecks who live near the segregated Louisiana base? Could it have been one of the sergeant’s own men, exacting revenge for all his bitter bullying and put-downs? It’s up to Capt. Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) to sort out the clues that appear in flashbacks.

That’s the basic story, but not the reason the 1982 drama still resonates in 2020.  Rather, it’s the sub-text that matters, the underlying meaning, the working out of racial tensions not just between whites and blacks but among blacks themselves.

The sergeant was determined to mold his soldiers into men who would rise above roles that society wants them to play. Desperately, Waters urged them to be not stereotypically “lazy and shiftless.” The men’s self-hatred, self-loathing stems from an outside world which cannot let the men forget they’re descended from slaves. Indeed, director Kenny Leon punctuates the evening with hymns and songs that recall servitude. There’s even a chain gang of sorts, a slow, symbolic march across the stage that echoes prisoners on the way to or from a work detail.

No wonder Capt. Davenport lets out an animalistic yowl at the end. Such hatred, such unkindness, such inability to escape from the past causes irredeemable pain. For all his discipline as an officer, for all his objectivity, Davenport cannot contain his horror.

Underwood is the production’s center, giving the play weight. Tough but compassionate, pliant but determined, the actor ever so subtly fights the kind of prejudice exhibited by a fellow (white) officer.

Under Leon’s taut direction, the characters are specific and individualized. Grier is dynamic as the unlikable sergeant, while, as the nerdish but bold Private Peterson, Nnamdi Asomugha seethes with disdain; J. Alphonse Nicholson is poignant as the guitar-playing, gentle Private C. J. Memphis; and Jared Grimes is  fretful as Private Smalls.

Derek McLane’s oppressive set and Allen Lee Hughes’ aslant lighting suggest a penitentiary, not an Army barracks. How appropriate for a drama about men imprisoned by the past.

--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 5, 2020

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