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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
A SOLDIER’S PLAY
at American Airlines Theatre

THE WAR THAT DIDN'T END
By DAVID COTE

  Warner Miller, Nnamdi Asomugha and Blair Underwood/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Time can diminish some winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Take Jason Miller’s That Championship Season, which nabbed the honor in 1973. When the play returned in a 2011 revival, its cynical portrait of middle-aged male disillusionment seemed small and self-pitying, hardly a drama of national importance. By contrast, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s lean, suspenseful and entertaining revival of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, while it unfolds during World War II, feels quite relevant. Fuller’s murder mystery won the Pulitzer in 1982, was turned into a successful film in 1984, and now makes a belated but momentous Broadway debut thanks to an appealing cast and Kenny Leon’s firm directing hand. Why such staying power? Easy: American racism is evergreen.
 
The location for this potent military drama is a segregated Army base in Louisiana, 1944. In the very first moments we’re presented with a killing and a conundrum: Sergeant Vernon D. Waters (David Alan Grier) is seen staggering drunk and laughing as he declares, “They still hate you! They still hate you!” A shot rings out. He falls. Another shot to head finishes him. What did his final words mean? The scene cuts to Army barracks, as a platoon of black soldiers is being frisked and their footlockers searched for weapons. The commanding officer is Sergeant Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell), a white man whose main distinction is being slightly less bigoted and hateful than his Southern counterparts. He wants to find out who shot Waters, and the assumed suspect is the local Ku Klux Klan – or perhaps white soldiers on the base. However, Taylor isn’t the Sherlock Holmes of this tale.
 
That would be Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood), who enters with a self-assured swagger, wearing sunglasses, announcing himself in direct address with a touch of film noir: “Call me Davenport – Captain, United States Army, attached to the 343rd Military Police Corps Unit,” he smoothly informs us. “I’m a lawyer the segregated Armed Services couldn’t find a place for. My job in this war? Policing colored troops.” Soon after he arrives, Davenport realizes he’ll have to work around the weaselly and insecure Taylor, and gain the trust of the black soldiers if he’s to discover who killed Waters.
 
As Davenport interrogates enlisted men, Fuller’s script fades into and out of flashbacks, and we start to get a picture of Waters. His right-hand-man, Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones), paints a picture of a tough but fair team leader. But Cobb (Rob Demery), Peterson (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Henson (McKinley Belcher III) provide more sinister takes: a black man who has internalized the racism of the system and turned it on the men below him, spewing racial epithets and contempt; a sadist who wants to weed out the supposedly weak and servile blacks who, he believes, are “holding back” the race. As the men train to fight a war against Hitler, they seem to have a brutal eugenicist in their own midst. One of Waters’ most successful campaigns is against Private C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a sweet-natured, guitar-strumming fellow who cracks under the pressure of Waters’ relentless psychological torture.
 
With a necessarily severe but effective two-level set by Derek McLane, richly shadowed lights by Allen Lee Hughes and a sensitive sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (that modulates for interpolated group singing between scenes), the production is first-rate. Director Leon continues his impressive winning streak with the past summer’s exuberant Much Ado About Nothing in Central Park and Will Eno’s darkly whimsical The Underlying Chris, fusing his actors into a tight unit. And Leon’s leading men fill their roles with style and passion. Underwood is a charismatic and commanding Davenport, zeroing in on the truth, no matter the emotional toll it takes. And Grier has for decades shown a strength for playing high-strung perfectionists, men who are driven to extremes (sometimes comically) to get the job done. Both are quite compelling, and well supported by a nimble ensemble.
 
At a time when we have openly racist leadership in the White House, and Black Lives Matter marches in the streets, it’s important to remount plays of the past that speak to the nation’s original sin of white supremacism (against Africans, Native Americans and immigrants). In A Soldier’s Play (loosely based on Melville’s Billy Budd), Fuller explored a particularly disturbing corner: the black man who has swallowed the poison of racist ideology, and in turn tries to poison others. Today’s armed forces and society may be integrated in principle, but that war never ended.

 


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