June 17, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“A Soldier’s Play,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, May 23-June 25, 2023
In Brief: This well-constructed drama is every bit as tense, impactful, and timely today as it was when it premiered in 1982. An outstanding cast and Kenny Leon’s articulate direction honor the author’s judicious examination of systemic racism in the military during World War II and the toll it took on the black soldiers subjected to it.
In Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, the murder of a black officer at Ft. Neal, Louisiana in 1944 triggers an inquiry leading to a conclusion that is at once startling and profound.
Sgt. Vernon Waters (Eugene Lee) is a harsh, unforgiving taskmaster. He’s a force to be reckoned with, an authority figure, not a friend to the men he’s responsible for. Lee’s definitive performance effectively conveys his character’s intimidating ways.
When Waters is found murdered one night both the black soldiers he led and the white officers in charge of the military camp assume it’s the work of the Ku Klux Klan from the nearby town.
That would be the most convenient solution for base commander Capt. Charles Taylor (William Connell), who doesn’t want to stir up further dissension or resentment from his black troops. Army attorney Capt. Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis) has been sent investigate.
Taylor finds this worrying enough, but that Davenport is black comes as a shock. The commander has never met a Negro officer.
To his credit, Taylor is determined to uncover the killer, no matter who it is, though he’s afraid that whites in the army and the town won’t accept the findings of a black attorney and that this will lead to more unrest and poor morale.
The push and pull between the two captains – one black, the other white – is one focus of the play.
Connell is convincing and sympathetic as a concerned commander who wants to do the right thing but is constrained by the values of his time and upbringing. Lewis is commanding in his role as an attorney committed to justice at a moment in history when the truth may be uncomfortable for both races to accept.
Fuller wants us to understand that this isn’t just a story about two men with diverging views of society. Indeed, the main thrust of his message seems to be about the anger and confusion that the black enlisted men feel amongst themselves.
How should they respond to their situation? Should they speak out against segregation in the armed services or go along to get along? It’s complicated. It will be another twenty years before the Civil Rights Act and still more decades later when minorities will achieve even some measure of redress and opportunity.
It’s frustrating that we are still trying to answer these questions some 80 years after the events in the story occur, although this, of course, is one reason why this thoughtful, sturdy play continues to resonate and impress.
The production of A Soldier’s Play now on stage at the Ahmanson is the Tony-winning 2020 version produced by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Co., albeit with a different cast.
All the design and technical credits are first rate.
So is the fine ensemble cast who not only offer believable, affecting performances but who also shine in the bluesy musical interludes that Fuller has written into the story, serving as soulful, poetic commentaries on the serious themes and unresolved issues that the author and cast ask us to reflect on once again.
“A Soldier's Play,” Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org