A Soldier's Play
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 15, 2005
Second Stage Theatre’s current revival of A Soldier’s Play is well done: there is a high level of proficiency in craft and technique on display from everyone involved. The production moves at a steady gallop, never lagging, and holds the audience’s attention throughout. But, while these are good attributes and make for a diverting evening of theatre, they are not enough to make for a riveting one. The key ingredients missing from this revival—passion, urgency, and inspiration—are the ones that prevent it from tapping into the full explosiveness of Charles Fuller’s powerful drama.
The setting of A Soldier’s Play is an Army base in the Jim Crow south—Fort Neal, Louisiana—during World War II. A black soldier, Sergeant Waters, is brutally murdered one night as he stumbles drunkenly back to his barracks. At first, the killing is attributed to the local Ku Klux Klan. The Army brass is not keen on spending a lot of time or resources investigating what they think is obviously a hate crime. (Remember: the play is set in a time when racism was still very prevalent in the U.S. and a "colored" man’s life was held in low esteem.) A military officer from Washington D.C., Captain Davenport, is sent to head the investigation. Davenport is a rarity for that era: a black officer. When Waters’s commanding officer, Captain Taylor (a white man) meets Davenport, he knows that the powers-that-be don’t take the investigation seriously. How do they expect the local authorities (also white) to cooperate with a colored officer? Nevertheless, spurred on by both pride and duty, Davenport moves ahead undeterred. Before long, he eliminates the Klan (and all other white men) as suspects, and begins to focus his efforts on Waters’s own men: an all-black company. The deeper Davenport digs, the more skeletons he finds hanging in their barracks, as it turns out that Waters was not as well-liked or respected as he’s initially made out to be.
The stakes are understandably high for everyone in A Soldier’s Play. The black soldiers are fighting for equality and respectability in a world that doesn’t want to give them either. But they don’t expect to receive such prejudicial treatment from one of their own. Waters—who appears in flashbacks throughout the play—is all about the military advancement of his race. But, he secretly covets the white man’s way of life—one of comfort, privilege, and power—and has trained himself to “play by their rules” in order to get ahead. Waters, in turn, forcibly tries to make his men adopt the same way of thinking (for their own good, of course), instead of allowing them to rise or fall on the strength of their own personalities. One soldier in particular, the Mississippi-born Private C.J. Memphis, becomes the preferred target of Waters’s ire (“The Sarge didn’t like Southern negroes,” one of the privates tells Davenport). Of C.J.’s good-natured, guitar-picking, happy-go-lucky homespun disposition Waters says, “We got to turn our backs on the chitlin’, collard greens, cornbread style.”
Fuller has a lot on his mind here—namely, the uplift of an entire race and how that must start from within. He argues that, as a people, blacks will never be able to defeat white racism towards them until they first eradicate the racism they direct at each other (and sometimes themselves). It’s a provocative idea that Fuller expresses beautifully, with well-written characters, sharp dialogue, and a solidly designed structure. By making A Soldier’s Play look ostensibly like a whodunit, he takes the polemic out of his message and makes it more palatable and dramatically interesting.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone could go wrong with such strong material to work with, but the creative team behind this production somehow manages to do it. That’s not to say that this production is bad, because it isn’t—it’s actually very good, by which I mean “good” in the “professional” sense. Director Jo Bonney stages A Soldier’s Play with her usual fluidity, and set designer Neil Patel, costume designer David Zinn, and lighting designer David Weiner all turn in reliably first-rate efforts. The pacing starts out nicely, and builds appropriately as tension increases and dramatic turning points are reached. Scene transitions flow smoothly to keep the show moving at a brisk clip.
But, this Soldier’s Play turns out to be nothing more than a hollow exercise in technique. Everyone does what’s expected of them as far as putting a polished veneer on the proceedings, but the nebulous, elusive spark of inspiration is glaringly absent. There is no passion or urgency to anything that happens on stage—strange, considering the script itself contains plenty of both qualities. No one is guiltier of perpetrating this than the actors, almost none of whom seems to have a fire in his belly. As Davenport, Taye Diggs is too nonchalant—he brings a casual detachment to his role that does not suit it. And as Waters, James McDaniel is not scary or tyrannical at all, just rude and insensitive (hardly a good enough reason to inspire as much vitriol as his character does). When he utters A Soldier’s Play’s most famous line to C.J.—“The black race can’t afford you no more.”—it hardly rises to the bone-chilling heights Fuller intended. The rest of the cast more or less falls in line behind their two leading men—they go through the motions without making us feel the heat. Only Anthony Mackie, who plays one of the more erudite soldiers, and Steven Pasquale, as Waters’s white commanding officer, rise to the play’s level of fervency.
It may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but the difference between what this production achieves and what it could achieve if it tried a little harder is the difference between an enjoyable evening of theatre and an edifying, life-altering artistic experience. While it’s good to know that technique and professionalism can carry plenty of weight, every show still needs the intangibles that can only be provided by an artist’s soul. They are the missing ingredients in this production, and the ones that keep this Soldier’s Play from being one for the ages.