At the beginning of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” a Black Army captain trained as a lawyer is summoned to Fort Neal, Louisiana, to investigate the mysterious murder of a Black sergeant. Sitting across the desk from his white counterpart, Captain Richard Davenport might as well be from outer space: No one has ever seen a Black officer of his rank.
It’s 1944. And while war engulfs Europe, a battle of another sort plays out in the segregated military. And yet, as Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner reveals with a devastating punch, racial tension isn’t always a clear-cut study in black and white.
One clue that something is amiss about this whodunit comes early on in director Kenny Leon’s riveting production, which picked up the 2021 Tony Award for best revival of play and is ensconced at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre through Sunday.
You’d think the brazen murder of a Black officer would rattle a group of African American soldiers on duty in the Deep South. This, after all, is the era of burning crosses and lynchings. But no one seems particularly bereft about the loss of ornery old Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (the excellent Eugene Lee). These men are more concerned with playing baseball, singing the blues and dealing with the itchy-scratchy reminders of sleeping with the wrong sort.
Credit: Joan Marcus
Credit: Joan Marcus
As the play unspools, we see that Waters wasn’t exactly a beloved and honorable man, and the perpetrators might not be the obvious suspects (i.e., the KKK or the bullying white soldiers whose vicious conduct mirrors modern-day accounts of police brutality).
In giving stories like “A Solider’s Play” and, more recently, Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” their long-overdue moment on Broadway, Leon makes a profound contribution to American theater. While Fuller’s drama may not be seamless, the director’s timing was nothing if not prescient.
When this Roundabout Theatre Company production opened on Broadway in early 2020, the world did not yet know about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, whose names Leon would go on to invoke in an emotional speech at the next year’s Tony ceremony.
For this national tour, he has assembled a first-rate cast: Lee, an actor I’ve admired over the years, gives an extraordinary performance as the bigoted, self-loathing Waters. Norm Lewis, as the lawyerly, chin-scratching Davenport, brings balance and gravitas. The company as a whole, and Will Adams’ Corporal Bernard Cobb in particular, bring a touch of “Take Me Out”-style sizzle to the barracks.
But the character who will break your heart is Private C.J. Memphis (Sheldon D. Brown), a guitar-strumming country boy who brings to mind the wise fools of Shakespeare and August Wilson. He’s the object of Waters’ lacerations, and his disintegration is the core tragedy of “Solider’s Play.”
While many young Americans might dread the front lines, these men yearn for war — perhaps because society and their supreme commander, Eisenhower, deem them unworthy.
As it turns out, Ike ain’t alone.
Waters, rather than support his own men, taunts and belittles them as inferior. His internalized racism and hate-spewing rants are vile and disturbing. He’s Hitler come to Fort Neal.
While Fuller can be eloquent, there’s a touch of cop-show formula in his structure. One by one, Davenport interviews key witnesses, a device that triggers numerous flashbacks — to sometimes murky effect. Fuller also populates what could be a tight ensemble with what feels like a soldier or two too many. You’ll need to pay close attention to who’s who, to what happened when.
Tuesday night’s opening performance was delayed for 19 minutes, a glitch an announcer attributed to technical difficulties. But once the story began, and the soldiers stormed set designer Derek McLane’s prison-like barracks, it marched on to a shattering finale.
With shades of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, Fuller allows us a peek into a heart of darkness. Funny how our worst enemies often spring from within.
“A Soldier’s Play”
7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $31-$81. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org/asoldiersplay.
Bottom line: A play about racism in the World War II-era military, with a deeply unsettling twist.
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