Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play” is getting a solid revival by Roundabout Theatre Company. (See Search for a review of a previous production.) A superb cast under the astute direction of Kenny Leon ignites sparks in this remarkable drama about racism in the military during World War II. Thanks to the playwright’s insight and unusual approach to the subject, “A Soldier’s Play” is complex rather than going for easy answers in what basically is a murder mystery in uniform.
The action takes place during 1944 in Fort Neal, Louisiana, where segregated African-American troops are training and in limbo, waiting to be finally shipped into action. They are depicted as eager for combat seemingly oblivious to the potential fate that could await them. At the outset we meet the contingent, shown marching in a choreographed display proudly showing off their cultural unity.
The story takes hold after nasty Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, powerfully played by David Alan Grier, has been shot and killed. In flashbacks we see that he has contempt for his men, whom he frequently berates. Waters is a bundle of racial conflicts, looking down upon his fellow black soldiers with contempt and considering them inferior. But he also feels sorry for himself as victimized by whites.
Arriving to investigate the crime is military lawyer Captain Richard Davenport, a meaty role made the most of by the excellent Blair Underwood. The white officer in charge of the troops, Captain Taylor (Jerry O’Connell), is astonished and angered to find that Davenport is black and regards him as an illegitimate intruder, which requires Davenport to vigorously assert his authority with superior orders to carry out the inquiry.
The obvious assumption might be that Waters was murdered by KKK-type southern racists. But Davenport is bent on digging for the truth. Permeating the situation is concern that higher-ups might be looking to cover up what happened, as two white soldiers were involved in beating up Waters on the night he was shot.
In the course of the play we meet various characters in the barracks (a huge wooden structure designed by Derek McLane). Suspicions abound as Davenport persistently interrogates the men. Despite the stakes, there is humor involved in the various face-offs and sometimes reluctant salutes.
The play is especially engrossing, apart from its being a mystery, because of the high quality of the writing and acting and the intensity of the staging, including the smooth integration of the necessary flashbacks. The payoff is powerful drama and the author’s achievement of looking at the various threads of racism gives the play weight.
It is especially interesting to see this work now. Although of its period and although times have changed, the curse of racism is still with us, and thus nothing basic in “A Soldier’s Play” is outdated. The added perspective from our era makes the play even more fascinating. This splendid revival deserves to be received as a highlight of this theatrical season. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed January 24, 2020.