Shots ring out. A man falls dead at the hands of an unknown killer. Enter an investigator to sort through a hefty pile of suspects and bring the culprit to justice.
Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” which originally appeared Off-Broadway in 1981, takes the form of a classic whodunit. But its enduring appeal has less to do with its solid store of suspense and the savory appeal of mystery stories than it does with the setting. The murder in question takes place on an Army fort that is home to a company of African-American servicemen preparing to ship out for combat in World War II.
The play, now presented for the first time on Broadway in a solid production directed by Kenny Leon, delves with a forensic inquisitiveness not just into the mystery itself, but also into the still-resonant matter of racism in the U.S. forces, the dangerous tensions that arise from it and its ability to poison and corrupt the minds of black servicemen.
David Alan Grier, who rose to fame with the television series “In Living Color” but has made frequent stage appearances (garnering three Tony nominations), plays Sergeant Waters, the murder victim, whose killing we witness near the top of the show, as he staggers drunkenly home from a bar, obviously in some sort of emotional distress.
Waters is a volatile and capricious man. As another character puts it, “He could be warm one minute, ice the next.” Grier vividly embodies his contradictions, seeming teddy bear-ish in one scene, gleefully cruel in another, abject and angry when in his cups, as the play moves back in time to depict the events that preceded his killing. (The play’s almost cinematic structure made it an easy stage-to-screen transfer when it became the superb movie “A Soldier’s Story,” in 1984.) Most importantly, Grier powerfully but subtly exposes the roots of his character’s inner conflict, capturing the gnawing guilt and burning sense of humiliation that have corrupted Waters’ humanity.
Waters is from the north, and he treats the Southern soldiers in his unit with seething contempt, accusing them of being too subservient to their fellow white soldiers and generally being infected with an inherited sense of inferiority. But Grier makes excruciatingly clear that Waters is projecting his own inwardly raging frustration at his treatment by his white superiors in the Army onto the men he abuses. His anger and contempt are really for his own treatment — and his acquiescence to it.
In the other leading role, as Captain Davenport, who is called in to lead the investigation into Waters’ killing, is Blair Underwood, whose distinguished career has also encompassed theater, film and television. Captain Taylor (a forthright Jerry O’Connell), who is in charge of the Louisiana base where the killing took place, initially bridles at the assignment of a black man to conduct the proceedings, arguing that cooperation in the still virulently racist Deep South will make it impossible for Davenport to do the job — particularly because Taylor is all but convinced a white man or men are guilty of it, and the Army, and the public, would be outraged at a black man accusing a white man of murder.
But Underwood, whose piercing eyes seem to glare even through the dark glasses Davenport occasionally wears (and imperiously refuses to take off at Taylor’s request), projects an unflappable sense of his own dignity. The character’s rock-solid integrity positively radiates from the stage, as Davenport calmly but ruthlessly interrogates all the witnesses and suspects. And Underwood’s ramrod-stiff posture underscores the character’s sterling professionalism, which makes a powerful contrast to the behavior of the man whose killing he has come to solve.
The supporting cast is uniformly superb. As Private C.J. Memphis, who is initially a favorite but eventually comes in for Waters’ most virulent abuse — ultimately leading to tragedy — J. Alphonse Nicholson gives an achingly good performance, showing how this soft-hearted, music-loving soldier grows bewildered and demoralized at his persecution. Nicholson also excels at suggesting how C.J. intuitively understands Waters’ predicament: “Any man who ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain,” he says at one point, with sorrow and sympathy in his voice. It is Waters’ recognition of this understanding, paradoxically, that may be the root cause of his twisted antagonism.
Nnamdi Asomugha gives a quietly seething performance as Private Peterson, who chafes most rebelliously at Waters’ sometimes brutal treatment of his soldiers, eventually goading Waters into challenging him to a fight, and taking a hard beating. What distinguishes Fuller’s play, among other things, is how he takes a classic formula — the detective-on-hunt-for-the-killer story — and peoples it with characters of specific but nuanced humanity, and, not incidentally, characters mainstream theatergoers would have been unfamiliar with in 1981, and to some extent today.
Private Wilkie, for example, played by the excellent Billy Eugene Jones, is derided by some of his fellow soldiers for his obsequiousness to Waters, but his behavior stems from a desperate desire to earn back the stripes that Waters stripped from him after he was found to be drunk on duty. All of the soldiers — unfortunately the cast is too large to single out all who deserve commendation — must wrestle with the potentially deadly racism that surrounds them (there have been lynchings near the base), the daily frustration of the menial jobs that black soldiers were largely relegated to doing and the rigid hierarchies of Army life, which can allow abuses of power to go unchecked. They are living in an emotional tinderbox, and trying to keep any incendiary flames from flaring up — knowing they will pay the price when they do.
A less imposing and expansive set design, by Derek McLane, might accentuate this atmosphere, and the drama’s tautness, a little more forcefully. But the American Airlines Theatre stage is not a small one, and Leon helps to fill in the transitions between scenes with snatches of song and a little marching here and there.
In any case “A Soldier’s Play” never struggles to hold our attention. It’s both an absorbing story and an emotionally and intellectually stimulating one, raising disturbing questions about the pernicious toxin of racism — “the madness of race in America,” as Davenport, acting as narrator, puts it perhaps a little too neatly in a final monologue — that, I hardly need to say, continues to haunt and divide the country into the 21st century.
“A Solider’s Play” opened at the American Airlines Theatre on Jan. 21, 2020.
Creative: Written by Charles Fuller; Music Consultant & Additional Arrangements: Jacinth Greywoode; Directed by Kenny Leon; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Dede Ayite; Lighting Design by Allen Lee Hughes; Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.
Producers: Roundabout Theatre Company.
Cast: David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Nnamdi Asomugha, Jerry O’Connell, McKinley Belcher III, Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, J. Alphonse Nicholson and Lee Aaron Rosen.