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Paulanne Simmons

Society on Trial in “A Soldier’s Play”

Chaz Reuben as Capt. Richard Davenport. Photo by Kamoier Williams.

"A Soldier’s Play"
Directed by Charles Weldon
The Negro Ensemble Company
Theater 80 St. Marks
80 St. Marks Place
From Sept. 27, 2017
Wed. thru Fri. at 7pm, Sat. & Sun. at 3pm & 7pm
Tickets: $25, $20 Students, Seniors and Groups of 10 or more, 866-811-4111
Closes: Oct. 8, 2017
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 1, 2017

Capt. Taylor (L, Buck Hinkle) meets Capt. Davenport (R, Chaz Reuben) for the first time.

Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize- winning “A Soldier’s Play” might be a very standard whodunnit. There’s a murder, lots of suspects, plenty of motivation, and interrogations of suspects by a conflicted investigator. Except that the play is set in a segregated U.S. army base during World War II, the victim is a black sergeant, and the suspects are both white officers and black enlisted men.

The play was originally staged by the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981, with a cast that included such notables a Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. Now, in its 50th anniversary season, the company is re-staging the show under the direction of Charles Weldon.

Gilbert Tucker as Sgt. Vernon C. Waters. Photo by Kamoier Williams.

Weldon has wisely made a virtue of necessity with a minimalist but effective set by Chris Cumberbatch. A few benches and painted flats recreate the Louisiana army base, while blues and popular music of the mid 20th century establish the time and the tone. But the heavy lifting here is done by an excellent cast, with actors doing double duty as both members of the ensemble and featured characters.

Although “A Soldier’s Play,” like all mysteries, keeps the audience’s interest through suspense and misdirection, Fuller intended his play to do much more than entertain. As Captain Richard Davenport (Chaz Reuben), the black army officer sent from Washington to investigate the murder of Sergeant Vernon Waters ( Gil Tucker) soon finds out, Walters’ murder had nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan, but was the result of much more complicated feelings of anger and resentment.

The question is which of these conflicts led to the murder. Was it the antagonism of the two white officers, Lieutenant Byrd (Derek Dean) and Captain Wilcox (Aaron Sparks)? Or was it the long-standing grudges of the assorted men who served under Waters?

Fulton Hodges as Pvt. James Wilkie and Chaz Reuben
as Capt. Richard Davenport. Photo by Kamoier Williams.
Arron Lloyd as Corporal Ellis.
Photo by Kamoier Williams.

As the drama unfolds, Davenport finds his investigation is complicated by Captain Charles Taylor (Buck Hinkle), C.O. of the unit, who does not believe a black officer, even one with a law degree from Howard University, will be able to solve the case. Davenport’s need to prove Taylor wrong significantly ups the ante. If it’s a foregone conclusion Davenport will find out who committed the murder, everything else that he discovers along the way is not.

The baseball team rejoices after a victory.

The unit is comprised of former Negro League players who are so successful as a team there is talk of them playing against the Yankees in an exhibition game. However, their unity unravels when they are not on the field. The men in the unit come from different parts of the country. They are urban and rural, northerners and southerners. What they have in common is their hatred of Waters, who is submissive to the white officers but bullies black men who don’t conform to his code of correct racial conduct.

L-R: Derek Dean as Lt. Byrd and Aaron Sparks as Capt. Wilcox. Photo by Kamoier Williams.

Tucker makes it clear why the soldiers despise Waters, but he also reveals the insecurities, aspirations and internalized racism that fuel his behavior. While the actors who portray Byrd, Wilcox and Taylor powerfully illustrate the prevalent attitudes in a society that has not come to terms with its inherent racism.

At a time when the President of the United States can defend the white nationalists protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee by saying they included “some very fine people,” we need “A Soldier’s Play” more than ever.


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