Wednesday, January 8, 2020

A Soldier's Play

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing A Soldier's Play presented by Roundabout Theatre Company.  Charles Fuller's drama about the murder of an African American soldier outside a military base in Louisiana during World War II remains just as explosive today as when it first premiered in 1981.

Among other things, A Soldier's Play is a detective story, which is why it went on to become a popular film (retitled A Soldier's Story) and won an Edgar Award for mystery writing in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The plot is tightly constructed, and the acting in this production is impeccable, which is small surprise, since it was directed by Kenny Leon, whose staging of Much Ado About Nothing was one of the most remarkable productions of last season.

David Alan Grier, who is perhaps best known for his comedy, gives an exceptionally dramatic performance as the murdered sergeant, whose story is told in flashback throughout the piece. Grier was also in the original production of the play, albeit in the much smaller role of Corporal Cobb (now played by Rob Demery, making his Broadway debut). As Sergeant Vernon Waters, Grier doesn't flinch from portraying a man who is as cruel to others as he is treated, both victimizer and victim.

The sergeant's death is investigated by Captain Richard Davenport, an African American lawyer of considerable skill and training, who admits to the audience toward the beginning of the play, "The Army didn't know what to do with me." At first he suspects the local Ku Klux Klan of perpetrating the murder, but soon he finds signs pointing to a member of the military committing the crime. Blair Underwood, who is perhaps most famous from L.A. Law, is quite at home playing Davenport as the attorney drills his way to uncovering the truth.

What makes A Soldier's Play remarkable is that it turns the familiar genres of police procedural and legal drama into a probing exploration of race in America and the complexities of innocence and guilt. All of this is set against the background of the Second World War, with the threat of imminent death always hovering in the air.

The original Off-Broadway production boasted some rising stars, including Denzel Washington as  Private Peterson, and Samuel L. Jackson as Private Henson. Nnamdi Asomugha is playing Peterson in this production, and McKinley Belcher III is playing Henson. Both are more than up to the challenge of their roles.

A Soldier's Play will only be on Broadway until the Ides of March, so get your tickets soon!