O’Connell Blair Underwood photos by Joan Marcus
By Eugene Paul
Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize play, A Soldier’s Play is finally
getting its Broadway due in this gripping Roundabout Theatre production and I
hope it runs as long as it did when the Negro Ensemble Company produced it back
in the early 80’s , 461 performances. It’s a murder mystery procedural set in
the U.S. military during 1944, when we were at war, very much at war. With
ourselves as well as that other enemy, Hitler and his zealous forces. Hitler
may be gone, we won that war. But the war against bigotry in all its faces?
Neal, Louisiana, 1944. Half happy, half miserable, very drunk Sergeant Vernon
C. Waters, (outstanding David Alan Grier) is shot dead. Twice. On base. First
suspicions center on the Klan but first clues don’t point that way. Klan
killers of Negro soldiers mutilate their uniforms and take souvenirs, insignia,
stuff like that. Waters is lying in his blood, uniform intact. Which points to
someone right there at Fort Neal. Captain Charles Taylor (braw, brisk Jerry
O’Connell), Sergeant Waters’s white commandant, thinks this is the time to call
for off base military crime investigators.
Captain Richard Davenport (excellent Blair Underwood). Alone. A shock to
Captain Taylor. Davenport is a Negro. He has never seen a Negro officer.
doesn’t know how to deal with the creature, he doesn’t even return Davenport’s
salute until his military training kicks in with an assist from a rigidly
courteous Davenport. He takes him to the crime scene among his gobsmacked
jubilant men. A Negro officer? They have never heard of a Negro officer!
Assist him? One of their own? They can’t wait. We’re beginning to see how
director Kenny Leon has melded scenic designer Derek McLane’s vision of the
play with his own and playwright Fuller’s in that wonder of wonders the
absolutely necessary collaboration of talents to shape a hit play
Warner Miller, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Blair
Underwood in A Solider's Play. (Joan Marcus)
are taken into back story, flashes of scenes again and again, in the mens’
barracks and out during Captain Davenport’s investigations. It just seems
right that the men push their cots and footlockers in choreographed effort. It
seems right, that they pick up songs and rythms from each other in a chorus of
chain gang sounding chants. We cotton to their complicated , linked marching.
Director Leon is brutally, yet sympathetically painting a picture of Negro
behaviors Sergeant Waters hates, has always fought against, the way they move,
the way they talk, that keeps them down and worst of all the laughing way they
accept the white man’s scorn.
Taylor’s platoon of men is pretty special in a very special way: they’re all
baseball players, recruited for their specialty, baseball. Captain Taylor is a
baseball nut. And wants the base winning team. He gives his boys leeways but
never stops Sergeant Waters from severely correcting them in his own lights.
Might the killer be among dead Sergeant Waters’ own men? Or- those white
MPs? Who don’t mind roughing up drunk niggers? Negro Captain Davenport may
find the men almost excessively cooperative almost all of them eager to bond
with this paragon of Negroness, an officer as he interrogates them one by one
but when it comes to the white military police the antagonism rises to almost
palpable. Military protocols be damned. He’s a Negro. Their astonishment when
he exonerates them is almost funny.
most surprising about playwright Fuller’s play is its continuing relevance
despite considerable advances in American society in the fraught area of race
relations., Yes, Negros have become African Americans, prodigies of power and
persuasion, among our brightest stars, among our billionaires, among our most
famous celebrities, not only in the field of entertainment but also in
finance, in the arts, philosophy, politics, sciences. In the past seventy-five
years alone we have, miraculously, inched closer to an all inclusive society.
Yet the blight, racism, is still with us.
admired the many fine performances in director Leon’s large company, including
NFL star Nnamdi Asomugha venturing into a new field. He has yet to find his
sea legs to mix metaphors but emanates undeniable charm. Special mention to
Jared Grimes. Costume designer Dede Ayite kept right on target but whoever was
in charge of 45s missed the mark. Mine looked and hefted nothing like that.
Soldier’s Play. At
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42ns Street. Tickets: $59-$299.
212-719-1300. 1hr,50 min. Thru Mar 15.