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Paulanne Simmons

A Mystery with a Message

A Soldier's Play
A SOLDIER'S PLAY -- Mike Colter, Anthony Mackie, and Teagle F. Bougere  Photo by Joan Marcus.

“A Soldier’s Play”
Directed by Jo Bonney
Second Stage Theatre
307 West 43rd St. at 8th Ave.
Tues. 7 p.m., Wed 2 and 8 p.m., Thurs. & Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 and 8 p.m., Sun 3 p.m.
$65, (212) 244-4422
Opened Sept. 20. Extended through November 27, 2005.
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 20, 2005

“A Soldier’s Play” is a brilliant and complex drama. It is told through narration, flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. But unlike many plays of the 21st century, its characters are ambivalent and complicated but never incomprehensible.

Originally staged in 1981, Charles Fuller’s play is every bit as riveting and relevant today in its Second Stage revival directed by Jo Bonney as it was almost a quarter of a century ago.

From the moment the drunken Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel) is killed by two blasts from a pistol until the mystery of who killed him is solved, the action never diminishes or dulls. Bonney has used dramatic, sometimes harsh lighting, music of the times and the offstage sound of soldiers marching, all to great effect. And the humor provided by the excellent ensemble of black soldiers humanizes and intensifies the tragedy.

If A Soldiers Play unravels in much the same way as a typical mystery, this is nevertheless no ordinary whodunit. It is a study of racism in the United States in all its perverted contradictions. Its mission is to show how racism has poisoned the relationships not only of blacks with whites, but also blacks with blacks and whites with whites.

When Captain Richard Davenport (the imposing Taye Diggs in a difficult role that asks him to weave in and out of the action) arrives at Fort Neal, Louisiana to investigate the case, the white Captain Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale, who completely understands Waters in all his contradictions) is not at all pleased, not because he does not want Waters’ killers apprehended, but because he doesn’t believe a black man is capable of bringing white men (who he believes committed the crime) to justice – a kind of ironic racism that was as prevalent as it is perplexing.

Sergeant Waters, it is soon revealed, may have been a victim of southern bigots who could not tolerate a black man wearing sergeants’ stripes. But he also may have been murdered by any one of the black soldiers he consistently bullied and belittled in his efforts to turn them into the kind of “Negroes” who would be a ccredit to their race. McDaniel makes him into an object of both pity and contempt, and ably resists the temptation of turning him into a stereotypical self-loather.

Perhaps most touching is how eager these black men are to fight for a country that degrades them every moment of their lives. When they are told they are finally going to be shipped overseas where they will see action, their enthusiasm is heart-rending.

A Soldier’s Play has a grim realism that sets it firmly in a certain time and place. But it also has an impressionistic quality which makes it seem that the events it relates could have happened at any time and any place.

Perhaps this is precisely what Bonney is trying to show in her gripping revival. Racism and its related ills are still a deep would in the American soul and the soul of her people. For that reason and many more, A Soldier’s Play is not to be missed.[Simmons]

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