“They still hate you”
A Soldier’s Play, begins with the murder of an African-American Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier), who is shot near Louisiana’s Fort Neal segregated military base in 1944. Suspicion immediately points to the KKK, who are none too happy about all the blacks stationed in their backyard. A black Army lawyer, a captain (Blair Underwood), is sent from Washington to handle the investigation. As he conducts his investigation, we meet the black privates and the white officers who are in command. Each time the captain conducts an interview, a flashback to another version of the events leading up to the murder until we find out who committed the crime.
Inspired by playwright Charles Fuller’s military experiences and based loosely on Melville’s Billy Budd, A Soldier’s Play, was a 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning Off Broadway play. It never played Broadway because Fuller refused to drop the last line, “You’ll have to get used to Black people being in charge.” In 1984 it was made into a film and was nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Writers Guild of America Award, and it won an Edgar Award.
Director Kenny Leon stages A Soldier’s Play in a way that allows each individual personality to shine. We know who each of these men are, as he adds song and steppin which was a part of the core back then. Private Tony Smalls (Billy Eugene Jones), the private with a murder motive, the angry Private Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha) and the witness Private Louis Henson (McKinley Belcher III) all capture our hearts.
Underwood bares his chest as he uses a pair of sunglasses, to define his character, but he commands the stage with grace and presence. Grier, plays the villainous Waters, who is filled with self-hate. His uses his resentment and rage on the black men under him who are not acting the way he thinks they should. The base’s white Capt. Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell) lends another side to this tale of bullying gone wrong. O’ Connell brings a likability to this man caught between two worlds.
The murder thought to be the work of the local KKK, turns out to be based on the treatment of Pvt. C.J. Memphis (the wonderful J. Alphonse Nicholson), whose baseball skills and blues guitar-playing has Walter’s acting one way and feeling another.
This ensemble, is among the best on Broadway. Shout outs to Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, and Lee Aaron Rosen.
Derek McLane’s stark, dark-wood set and Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting evokes hauntingly slave quarters or wooden cages.
A Soldier’s Play speaks about the men who so bravely wanted to fight for this country and lost their lives in doing so. This is must see theatre.
A Soldier’s Play: American Airlines Theatre, 227 W 42nd St. until March 15th.