It’s set at the U.S. Army’s Fort Neal in Louisiana, in 1944, when troops were racially segregated. The company of African-American soldiers is under the tyrannical command of the black Sergeant Vernon Waters. Many of them were Negro League baseball players and playing in games is part of their service, in addition to menial labor such as trash collecting and painting the social club that they’re not allowed to enter.
After Sgt. Waters is shot to death, the black Captain Richard Davenport is sent by his superiors to investigate the crime. Much of the play is structured as a series of flashbacks that dramatize his inquiry. Was the culprit a member of the Klu Klux Klan, a pair of racist white officers or one of his own men?
Mr. Fuller weaves a highly suspenseful and racially charged murder mystery that justifiably was showered with theatrical accolades that also included the New York City Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play. With allusions to the maniacal Captain Vere in Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, Fuller creates in Sergeant Waters, one of the great villains in dramatic literature.
He is a rigid soldier who served in W.W. I, and is revealed to be a self-loathing black man who rose through the ranks. He has contempt for fellow African-Americans who behave in a stereotypical manner, and has consistently targeted such men for abuse.
With his raspy voice, blazing eyes and imposing physicality, Gil Tucker’s towering performance as Waters is the muscle of this successful production. Mr. Tucker vividly conveys the character’s psychological complexities, simultaneously rendering his characterization loathsome and sympathetic. Tucker’s drunken mea culpa is shattering.
Chaz Reuben is engagingly stalwart as Captain Davenport. Jimmy Gary, Jr. is heartbreaking as the amiable, guitar-playing simpleton who arouses Waters’ ire. Boyishly charming Buck Hinkle is forceful as the white army captain who nobly seeks the truth. The sorrowfully animated Fulton Hodges brings tremendous pathos, humor and depth as Waters’ henchman.
As a relatively silent soldier, Arron Lloyd makes a subtly comic impression with his saluting, entering and exiting that all have rhythmic movements akin to dance.
P.J. Max, Horace Glasper, Derek Dean, Jay Ward, Adrain Washington and Aaron Sparks complete the sensational ensemble.
Director Charles Weldon acted in the 1983, Mark Taper Forum’s Los Angeles production, and besides his meticulous casting he has perfectly rendered this revival. Mr. Weldon’s physical staging inventively, precisely and aesthetically utilizes the large stage to faithfully realize the material.
Melody A. Beal’s glorious lighting design is a key element of the show’s effectiveness. Ominous darkness alternating with degrees of brightness ranging from stark to muted, all visually depict the moods of the action and the time period. Actors’ faces are at times strategically shadowy. A dusky, claustrophobic scene in a jail cell is strikingly lit and is terrifying.
Scenic designer Chris Cumberbatch’s clever assembly of basic wooden furniture and sections of wooden walls simply and realistically represent the fort’s locales.
From The Andrews Sisters singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” to gunfire and to other effects, Jacqui Anscombe’s accomplished sound design conveys the aural details.
Fitted military uniforms for the officers and baggy ones for the privates are authentic details of costume designer Ali Turns’ excellent creations.
Director Norman Jewison’s critically and commercially successful 1984 film adaptation was titled A Soldier’s Story. It featured Denzel Washington who was in the orignal stage production in a supporting part. Also from that premiere incarnation, was Adolph Caesar recreating his role of Sgt. Waters for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film was also nominated by The Academy for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
A Soldier’s Play is a modern classic that has been flawlessly mounted.
A Soldier’s Play (through October 8, 2017)
Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.necinc.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission