Nearly 40 years after its celebrated Off Broadway debut and subsequent hit movie adaptation, Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play, opening tonight on Broadway at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, has lost little of its power. Even in a Broadway landscape that could give home to the explosive Slave Play, Fuller’s 1981 mystery remains a bracing slap of a drama, a thoughtful examination of American bigotry and the many tolls it exacts.
With three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier and a commanding Blair Underwood leading a first-rate, 12-member cast, this Soldier’s Play (adapted as A Soldier’s Story for the 1984 film) moves with all the precision of a military cadence. The production is not without its missteps – a few self-conscious moments seem like gratuitous elbow jabs to make sure we understand the contemporary relevance – but director Kenny Leon drives the narrative with a solid feel for momentum.
Making its Broadway premiere after all these years (Roundabout artistic director Todd Haines writes that the play was “originally considered too revolutionary for Broadway”), A Soldier’s Play was inspired by the playwright’s military experiences (wrapped in a fictional mystery plot based loosely on Melville’s Billy Budd).
Set at Louisiana’s Fort Neal segregated military base in 1944, Fuller’s story begins with the onstage shooting death (by offstage killers) of the tough-as-nails African-American Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (Grier). The drunken officer is screaming “They still hate you” when the bullets come, setting up the play’s whodunit and whydidit. (Derek McLane’s clever two-tiered set allows us to see the murder – on the balcony level – without losing sight of the barracks.)
Underwood plays Capt. Richard Davenport, the outside officer sent to the segregated base to solve the crime. A black captain in a military that has few, Davenport immediately has the good will of the soldiers in Waters’ all-black unit, though the base’s white Capt. Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell) just as quickly objects (for reasons more complex than we immediately suspect).
While the murder is initially thought to be the work of the local KKK, suspicion soon falls on one of Waters’ own men, Pvt. C.J. Memphis (J. Alphonse Nicholson), a genial country kid whose baseball skills and blues guitar-playing make him a popular figure among his fellow soldiers – with the exception of Waters, who disdains what he views as the stereotypical, demeaning “clown” behavior of Southern black men like Memphis.
Waters’ intense loathing and harsh treatment of the “shiftless” Southern soldiers he believes are holding back the advancement of black men in both the military and society leaves just about every one of his men with a motive for murder. Before the identification of two white officers (who might or might not be guilty) as the latest suspects, Waters has already singled out Memphis for scrutiny, with disastrous results.
The play is a talky one, consisting largely of interrogations and conversations (sometimes in flashback, allowing Grier’s Waters a central role in the proceedings), and so relies heavily on the cast’s ability to keep us hanging on every word. Mission accomplished. There are no weak links among the dozen actors onstage – the tight, relay-race structure of A Soldier’s Play would otherwise come undone.
Grier, in the role that made a star of the Negro Ensemble Company’s Adolph Caesar (who reprised the role for the film, earning an Oscar nomination), adds the occasional and unexpected hint of humor to the villainous Waters, but it’s a humor tinged with resentment and rage. More than one revelation is made all the more shocking coming from an actor most closely associated with comedy (an association that overlooks Grier’s many dramatic credits, not least of which was a role in this play’s original production and its film adaptation).
As the investigator who challenges both military and societal traditions in his quest for the truth, Underwood makes expert use of his considerable star quality and leading man looks, lending his character a charisma that seems entirely in keeping with the leadership job he’s handed.
Similarly, Jerry O’Connell, as the white captain who attempts to roadblock the investigator – if not the investigation – brings his own likability to a character whose unacknowledged privilege is matched only by his sometimes willful ignorance. We sense early on that O’Connell’s Taylor isn’t the play’s heavy, though he can’t be its hero either. The actor finds the balance.
As the soldiers who may or may not know more than they let on – and who naively long for the WWII battlefront that’s been denied them but is coming all too soon – this ensemble, among the best currently on Broadway, nails both the commonalities of these men just as precisely as their differences. Each deserves more than the mention they’ll get here: J. Alphonse Nicholson (as the genial Memphis), Nnamdi Asomugha (as the angry Private Peterson), McKinley Belcher III (as the soldier who witnesses a crucial moment), Rob Demery (as one of the Southern men hated by Waters), Billy Eugene Jones (as the private with a murder motive), and Jared Grimes, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, and Lee Aaron Rosen, all terrific.
Director Leon stages A Soldier’s Play with an uncluttered attention to character that clarifies individual personalities right from the start; even before we know their names, we know their personalities. That’s as crucial in a well-told, plot-driven murder mystery as it is in any character-based memory play.
Leon’s trust in his cast, maybe even in the play, falters only a few times – say, when he has Underwood ostentatiously don a pair of sunglasses, General MacArthur-style, or when a blast of hip-hop trumpets the play’s 21st Century relevance.
And there’s an odd, mood-breaking moment when Underwood begins the second act with his shirt unbuttoned, his torso exposed. Audience whoops, cheers and whistles have become a regular occurrence, and clearly expected: At the reviewed performance, the response went on so long that Underwood briefly paused his monologue, ever so slightly acknowledging the reaction in order to quiet things down and get on with the play.
There’s a simpler and more permanent solution, of course: Button up before taking the stage. Neither the actor nor A Soldier’s Play needs the flattery.