A SOLDIER'S PLAY
February 8, 2020
Two shots ring out. That act tosses the characters into a cauldron of suspicion poisoning the plot.
Creating a sensation when it debuted in 1981, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play returns to the Roundabout Theatre. Sharply directed by Kenny Leon, it’s set in an army barracks based in the South in 1944, where the African-American battalion has seen little action overseas. However, the company baseball team is unstoppable.
When the detested black captain Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier) is murdered, suspicion falls on the local Ku Klux Klan. The white captain (a wonderfully mercurial Jerry O’Connell) who presides over the whole barracks wants to bury the investigation but an African American lawyer, Captain Richard Davenport, newly (a fine Blair Underwood) assigned to the case upends the intended process.
Acapella blues songs and dance moves reminiscent of field hollers add a chilling, transporting dimension. All the physically fit men in the cast are such strong singers, movers and actors; it’s not difficult to believe they are all championship level baseball players.
After an expected standoff between the white and black captains, Davenport assumes full reign of the crime. One service man after another emerges to relay an alibi ending with a common refrain: everyone has a beef with Sgt. Vernon.
In intermittent flashbacks, Sgt. Vernon stomps the grounds, verbally and at times physically abusing his men – particularly anyone who suggests a “shuckin’ and jivin’ black stereotype.
Under the circumstances, Davenport struggles to retain objectivity and piece together the puzzle. Finally, the men confess to a tragic event that caused one of their brothers, the best hitter on the team and imminently likable Private C. J. Memphis, to hang himself.
Unable to stomach the remnant image of an uneducated, guitar-playing, blues-singing blackman, Grier confiscates Memphis’ beloved guitar and tosses him in solitary confinement. That proves fatal.
Kenny Leon’s steady hand guides the drama and skilled cast members -- expertly building up the drama until the final reveal.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Celia Ipiotis