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Beate Hein Bennett
They Still Hate You...
"A Soldier's Play"
February 14 – March 4, 2018
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, Manhattan
Presented by Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. [NEC]
Weds. – Suns. @ 7 PM, Sat. & Sun. matinees @ 3 PM, no performance on Fri. 3/2, closes Sun. 3/4 @ 3 PM
General admission: $35; Students, Seniors, Groups of 10+: $30
Box Office: 866-811-4111, www.nec.org, Group sales: 212-582-5860
Gil Tucker, as Sgt. Waters, confronts his squad.
As gun violence and racial tensions have gripped the headlines and rattled the collective psyche of the nation, "A Soldier's Play" by Charles Fuller (born 1939) has particular poignancy as it uncovers many of the unspoken resentments simmering beneath the surface. The play premiered in 1981 off-Broadway at Theatre Four to great critical acclaim for the author and NEC, winning a Pulitzer Prize and NY Drama Critics Award for best American Play, and three Obie Awards, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play. It ran for two years and in 1984 was made into an Academy Awards nominated film, "A Soldier's Story," adapted by Charles Fuller and directed by Norman Jewison. The original production, directed by NEC Founding Director Douglas Turner Ward, launched the careers of Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, James Pickens, Jr., and Adolph Caesar who went on to become some of the most respected actors in theater and cinema. Playwright Charles Fuller continued to contribute several more successful plays to the repertory of NEC in the course of its fabled 50 year history. His most recent play, "One Night…" about sexual assault in the armed forces premiered at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in November 2017.
L-R: Derek Dean as Lt. Byrd, Aaron Sparks as Capt. Wilcox, Gil Tucker as Sgt. Walters.
The present production of "A Soldier's Play," originally staged in 2017 at 80 Theatre St. Marks, is directed by Charles Weldon who was a member of the cast in the 1983 Mark Taper Forum production. In the intimate space of the Gene Frankel Theatre, he has guided an excellent cast through a fast-paced performance of a non-linear play; scenes of interrogation about events alternate with scenes of memory of those events that also explore the relationships among the characters. The play is set on a military base in Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944. Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, a black man, is killed outside the base; the local KKK is suspected of the murder, a convenient assumption by most white commanding officers. Sergeant Waters is the NCO in command of a platoon of black privates who, as members of a popular black baseball club, were drafted into the military to play against a white team for "entertainment."
Jimmy Gary, Jr. as Pvt. C.J. Memphis.
However, these privates hope eagerly to be deployed into combat against the enemy (Germany and Japan); they resent being mostly used for low menial tasks. Sergeant Waters, a proud black military man who had fought for the US Army in WWI aspires to be fully accepted by the dominating white world. He espouses openly and forcefully the symbols of white culture in language, extreme discipline, and orderliness. He challenges, belittles, hectors, and insults members of his platoon whom he deems to be an insult to the Negro race when they speak and behave in a manner natural to them, singing the blues, dancing, being playful with each other. Into this cauldron of a Southern hostile environment ringing a segregated military encampment during WWII, Captain Richard Davenport, a Howard University educated black lawyer with the US Military Police, has been dispatched by the Army to investigate the murder of Sergeant Waters. The full spectrum of race relations unfolds from this situation. As we watch him courageously pursuing his leads to find the perpetrator of this murder, the complicated web of military protocol and internal race relations unfolds.
(R) Fulton Hodges as Pvt. James Wilkie and (L) Chaz Reuben as Capt. Richard Davenport.
Chris Cumberbatch designed a set that immediately reads military barracks with simple wooden bunks on the periphery; on each side are set a table with two chairs, one side being the white Captain Charles Taylor's space while the other side is for Captain Davenport’s interrogations. However, Mr. Weldon choreographs the entire space for the diverse action and time frame needs with inventive precision. Melody A. Beal's lighting supports the action by differentiated color tones that indicate past events as remembered by the various characters. Costume Designer Ali Turns procured the exact military uniforms with distinct casual clothing worn by the platoon when at ease in their bunk space. Sound designer Jacqui Anscombe provides WWII period appropriate popular music as well blues played live on guitar and sung by Jimmy Gary Jr., a burly actor with a wide range of emotions, who portrays Private C.J. Memphis—the tragic character who becomes the butt of Sergeant Waters’ scorn.
(R) Adrian Washington as PFC Melvin Peterson, (L) Chaz Reuben as Capt. Davenport.
This brings me to the strength of acting by the entire ensemble. Fuller's characters span a wide spectrum of personalities that enable his dramaturgy to develop the distinct expressions of racial prejudice, both white on black as well as black on black. While there is a certain behavioral predictability, the dialogue among the characters is full of surprises. The play starts with the murder of Sergeant Waters who tumbles on stage, completely drunk, and shouts towards off-stage right the first lines in the play: "They still hate you…they still hate you…" before he collapses shot from off-stage right. Gil Tucker, who plays Waters, a mature light complexioned black man (as Fuller describes him) comes back to life in the remembered scenes; Tucker displays fully the complex psyche of this man whose ambitions ultimately project his self-hatred to commit betrayal of himself and his race brothers. Enter Captain Davenport, portrayed with self-assured elegant cool by Chaz Reuben; he pursues his investigation with absolute integrity wherever it may lead—and, we the audience, follow him in fascination, as he demolishes one presumption of guilt after another. Buck Hinkle who towers over everyone plays the difficult role of Captain Taylor, the white counterpart to Davenport and self-presumptive superior officer in charge of the proper conduct of the investigation—he struggles with his own prejudicial demons—but Hinkle displays a sympathetic side through his respect for Davenport and fairness towards the black platoon (probably in the interest of keeping the military base quiet and the off-base local population at bay).
L-R: Derek Dean as Lt. Byrd, Aaron Sparks as Capt. Wilcox.
Since the ensemble of characters consists of very different personalities, I would like to briefly mention each of the actors: Fulton C. Hodges with a beautiful nasal voice plays Private Wilkie, a busybody, as a likeable but shifty and ultimately feckless man. Countering him is PFC Melvin Peterson, a courageous rebellious hot head, played by Adrain Washington with wily wit. Arron Lloyd gives Corporal Ellis a quality of modesty that distinguishes him from his fellows. Corporal Bernard Cobb, is played by Jay Ward with a certain mature authority within his platoon. P.J. Max plays Private Tony Smalls, a meek very young member of the platoon; he has a touching scene with his friend Pvt. C.J. Memphis when he is sent to the stocks by Sergeant Waters. Horace Glasper is Private Henson who becomes progressively more afraid in the course of the investigation. Two white officers, Lieutenant Byrd (Derek Dean) and Captain Wilcox (Aaron Sparks) display the tensions simmering in a military that was beginning to break down the barriers of segregation, most likely because of the exigencies of having to fight a war spread all over the world, but where the private sentiments of the personnel involved often did not match the military command situation or where rank, i.e. Commanding Officer versus NCO, provided a convenient cover.
Charles Fuller said about "A Soldier's Play" that "it never played on Broadway" despite its critical success because he refused to take out the last line in the play, spoken by Captain Davenport: "You’ll have to get used to Black people being in charge."
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