Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A Soldier's Play
The play takes place at the fictional Ft. Neal, Louisiana, and begins with the murder of the mean and tyrannical Sergeant Vernon Waters, an officer who often berates the Black men under him who he believes should behave more like the white soldiers. After Waters is shot and killed on a country road outside of the base, presumably by members of the Ku Klux Klan, a series of cover-ups and accusations are set in motion, leading to an investigation overseen by Captain Richard Davenport, a rare Black Army investigator. While butting heads with the white Ft. Neal Captain Charles Taylor, who feels they only sent a Black investigator to make a joke of him and the investigation, Davenport meticulously interviews each of the Black enlisted men under Waters' command as well as the white bigoted soldiers who were the last known to see him alive to determine why and how Waters was murdered. Through a series of flashbacks, we witness Waters' harsh treatment of his men until the murderer is revealed.
While the play isn't based on any historical events, Fuller has said he loosely based it on Herman Melville's novella, "Billy Budd," which focuses on a new sailor, a murder, mutiny, and a court martial on a ship in the London fleet. He crafted an intriguing plot and created realistic, fleshed-out characters who are faced with questions of identity as well as the impact of both sacrifice and dedication in the service. Fuller specifically shows how racism in the military isn't only coming from the white men, as he writes Waters as a Black man who despised and looked down upon the Black men under him who conformed to racial stereotypes. In doing so, he shows that Waters, while educated, was also a racist who felt some Black individuals were getting in the way of his and other members of the African American communities' possible success. Kenny Leon's smart and precise direction ratchets up the tension with strong and searing performances from the entire cast that grab your attention and don't let go.
Norm Lewis may be better known for his musical theatre performances (he was Tony nominated for his portrayal of Porgy in the Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess), but here he proves that he is equally at home in dramas with a refined portrayal of Davenport, a detailed yet fair man. It is a commanding performance emboldened with strength and power, but it is also a compassionate portrayal infused with care and dedication of a man who won't let up and who knows he has to see this case to the end, even as he encounters obstacles and individuals who try to stop him.
Eugene Lee is exceptionally captivating as Sergeant Waters in a performance full of fire, gravitas, and a strong physical presence that is at times intense. One clearly understands from Lee's excellent and honest performance why this man believes his vile actions and harsh treatment of the soldiers under his command are justified. He continually pushes them and berates them to what he believes is their limit. Lee played one of the solders in the original Off-Broadway production in 1991, so he has vast knowledge of this play and what is required to make his performance succeed.
William Connell is clear and concise as Captain Charles Taylor, the officer who reported the murder to Army headquarters. Taylor is a complicated character that Fuller gives much detail to. Through Connell's rich performance it can be understood how Taylor, who isn't used to seeing a Black man at the same military level as himself, isn't actually a racist but just a man who knows that a court in the South won't accept a case overseen by a Black man if the killer is white. It is quite believable from Connell's thought out and compassionate performance that Taylor comes to realizes he does hold some racial prejudices, even if he tries to treat all of his men equally, and that over the course of the play he has grown and come to understand and accept that there will be many other non-white men like Davenport who will be his equal in the future.
The rest of the cast form a tight and strong ensemble and deliver excellent performances, including Sheldon D. Brown as C.J. Memphis, a tender and introspective soldier Waters singles out for harassment; Tarik Lowe as Peterson, the soldier who talks back to Waters; and Howard W. Overshown as Wilkie, a soldier who lost his stripes and does whatever he can to get them back.
Derek McLane's two-level set beautifully depicts the barracks and various rooms at the army base with wooden slats and beams. The striking lighting by Allen Lee Hughes and crisp sound design by Dan Moses Schreier combine perfectly to depict the moods and various times of day in the play. The starkness achieved from the combination of set and lighting delivers an intimacy to the production. The costumes by Dede Ayite are period and character specific.
While Fuller's excellent play offers an answer to the murder as it focuses on racial issues, he also never lets go of the underlying notion that these are also Black soldiers who, even if they rise up and overcome their racial barriers, will most likely die in battle. When one soldier states, "I hope we get lucky enough to get shipped out of this hell hole and into the war," you can't help feel for how short you know their lives will most likely be and the hell they had to deal with before they even got sent overseas.
A Soldier's Play runs through May 21, 2023 at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.asugammage.com or call 480-965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.roundabouttheatre.org/get-tickets/2022-2023-season/a-soldiers-play-tour/
Playwright: Charles Fuller