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Theatre in Review: A Soldier's Play (Roundabout Theatre Company/American Airlines Theatre)

David Alan Grier. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Some plays, especially acclaimed works from the recent past, require extra love and care to succeed, which is why Kenny Leon was such a fine choice to direct Roundabout's revival of A Soldier's Play. The 1982 winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Charles Fuller's drama has always been a slightly odd hybrid, a slickly constructed police procedural mystery that houses some remarkably ugly, intractable truths about race in America. The trick is to preserve the excitement of following the clues while making space for an unsparing indictment of white supremacy. (I saw the original production, and, through the mists of time, recall it being slightly ponderous, even with a stars-of-tomorrow cast that included Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Friedman, Brent Jennings, and Cotter Smith.) At the Roundabout, Leon knits together the play's disparate parts with apparent ease, aided by a cast that includes both accomplished stars and some exceptionally intriguing new faces, resulting in a production that entertains and disturbs in equal measure.

The action begins with a shock: Vernon C. Waters, a US Army sergeant, seen in a drunken stupor, is murdered in cold blood, felled by two gunshots from an unseen assailant; because Waters is stationed in Louisiana in 1944, the assumption is that white townsmen -- probably Ku Klux Klan members, disturbed by the fact of a black man in an NCO's uniform -- are responsible. Adding credibility to this theory is the victim's final words: "They'll still hate you! They still hate you." Then again, if Waters was the victim of a racial incident, why were his sergeant's stripes not ripped from his uniform, an action typical of a lynching? Adding to the unease evoked by the crime, ninety percent of the soldiers on base are black, and the all-white command is afraid of retaliation against the locals.

In the stumbling, ham-handed manner of the time, the Army brings in Richard Davenport, a black captain (and lawyer) from the military police, to investigate -- but not too much. As he dryly notes, "The matter was to be given the lowest priority." Indeed, his presence makes clear that nobody in the higher echelons wants to stir up trouble; he is reminded that he cannot interrogate a white suspect, let alone arrest one, in this part of the world. Adding to his challenges, he is assigned to the case five weeks after the fact, reducing to near-zero his chances of finding the perpetrator. As an example of the chilly welcome that awaits him, Taylor, the captain in charge, tells him, "Forgive me for occasionally staring, Davenport; you're the first colored officer I've ever met."

Since Taylor is on Davenport's side, you can see how difficult -- and possibly futile -- the latter's task will be. Meanwhile, Fuller rolls out an array of suspects from the men under Waters' command, all of whom look especially suspicious after we learn that the sergeant was killed with Army-issue bullets. One flashback follows another, revealing Waters as twisted by white bigotry and his own self-hate, brutally punishing his men for not doing enough to uplift the race. As he tells one soldier, "We got to challenge this man in his arena -- use his weapons, don't you know that? We need lawyers, doctors - generals -- senators! Stop thinkin' like a n------!"

Waters' fury finds a deadly focus on CJ, a guitar-playing country boy, who, he insists, "undermines us." The sergeant's men -- most of them veterans of the Negro Leagues -- form a baseball team so popular that they are scheduled for an exhibition game with the New York Yankees. But not even CJ's sporting expertise can save him. In a passage loaded with some of Fuller's most savagely pertinent writing, Waters bares his disdain for the young man: "Hits home runs -- white boys envy his strength -- his speed, the power in his swing. Then this colored champion lets those same white boys call him Shine -- or Sambo at the Officers Club." In his most chilling speech, he warns, "The First War, it didn't change much for us, boy -- but this one -- it's gonna change a lot of things. Them Nazis ain't all crazy -- a whole lot of people just can't fit into where things seem to be goin' -- like you, CJ. The black race can't afford you no more."

For all his hatefulness, Waters is trapped in a hopeless proposition, insisting that only by presenting the whitest possible face to the world can black people achieve anything remotely like equality -- an idea that is viciously disproved by his encounter with a pair of race-baiting white officers. And, as his dream proves ever more elusive, he turns on his men, subjecting them to the poison he has absorbed from others. As the facts surrounding the crime -- including planted evidence, Waters' brutal physical punishments, a vicious beating, and suicide -- snap into place, A Soldier's Play clinically probes how prejudice has seeped into Waters' soul, corroding it from the inside.

This state of affairs is made hair-raisingly vivid by David Alan Grier as Waters, who is, by turns, preening, fatherly, inhuman, and heartbreakingly, irretrievably broken; when we finally learn the truth of his final moments, the cruelty on display is almost unimaginable. Providing the strongest of contrasts Blair Underwood as Davenport -- self-possessed, gifted with a sense of self-worth, his line readings laced with irony -- who must face off against the suspects and fellow officers who wish he wasn't there.

With one exception, the rest of the cast is equally strong. (Jerry O'Connell, as Taylor, the captain who can't get used to a black man who doesn't back down, rushes through his lines, missing crucial beats that would enhance the drama; he is by no means terrible, but he needs to relax.) Nnamdi Asomugha, a former NFL player making his Broadway debut, brings slow-burning tension to each appearance as a soldier who openly hated Waters and doesn't mind admitting it. J. Alphonse Nicholson captures the poignancy of CJ, so furiously prosecuted for the crime of being himself. Billy Eugene Jones is acute as the cagiest of the barracks-mates, who knows more than he cares to say; the same goes for McKinley Belcher III as a reluctant witness to a key piece of evidence. Nate Mann and Lee Aaron Rosen raise hackles as the white officers who set in motion the play's disastrous denouement.

In Leon's hands, the action builds relentlessly to that terrible moment. The director also makes the most of sequences featuring the soldiers singing the blues in near darkness and adding some jazzy slide steps to their marching exercises he also finds drama in a soldier's furious memory of losing his stripes; in a drawn-out, emotionally charged salute between an officer and an enlisted man; and in Davenport's mordant sign-off speech -- a tacit admission that, in a way, Waters was right: After the war is over, ready or not, a change is gonna come.

The production design is perfectly tuned to the play's needs. Derek McLane's set is well-suited to handle a drama that moves swiftly through several locations; the slatted-wood upstage wall, offering only a glimpse of the sky, adds to the sense of men living in close quarters. Allen Lee Hughes' stunning lighting creates several gorgeous tableaux in addition to deploying warm- and cold-white washes to distinguish between past and present; this is one of his finest designs. Dede Ayite accurately recreates the military uniforms of the period. Dan Moses Schreier's sound design includes some deeply unsettling gunshots and a surprising musical selection that adds an extra kick to the finale.

There are moments when A Soldier's Play feels a little too neat, and, at the Roundabout, at least one big moment -- an anguished outburst from Davenport near the end -- feels a little too carefully conceived and executed. But, nearly forty years after its premiere, the drama's insights -- about the awful, complex calculations of hate -- remain dismayingly convincing. We still have a long, long way to go before this work will feel out of date. -- David Barbour

(30 January 2020)

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