Set on an Army base in the backwoods of Louisiana in 1944, the seminal event of this riveting play occurs a few seconds after the curtain rises, as Tech Sergeant Waters is shot and killed by an unseen assailant. Most of the African American troops in Waters's unit believe he was offed by a local Klan goon, but soon a black officer, Captain Davenport, arrives to conduct an investigation. The camp commander, Captain Taylor, is pissed by this turn of events, since he's never seen a man of Davenport's race in a position of authority. (He admits candidly, "Being in charge just doesn't look right on Negroes.") But Davenport begins his probing, and the various layers of what really happened are revealed through interviews and flashbacks.
The primary strength of this production is the tight ensemble work of the soldiers in the all-black barracks, who are ordered to spend their time painting, cleaning, and playing baseball for the Fort Neal team. Actors Jermaine Edwards, John Greer, Jason Walker, and especially James Polk as ex-sergeant Wilkie manage to shape individual characters from their sea of Army green. And, in the key role of the complex and haunted Waters, Doug Pratt turns in a spitfire performance. Cuddly one minute and vicious the next, Pratt's Waters is a profound portrait of self-hate as he continually razzes an easygoing private in his charge, C.J. Memphis (a properly naive Major Fisher). Waters sees all of his race's supposed weaknesses encapsulated in C.J.'s smiling, deferential manner, and the tech sergeant never skips an opportunity to dump on him ("C.J. is a Negro in blackface! Yassuh, yassuh."). Short and stocky, with ramrod-stiff posture, Pratt is an intimidating physical presence as he lacerates any soldier who dares to confront him. The fascinating Waters is almost Captain Queeg-like in his deep-rooted fixations, busting the balls of his captive troops instead of compulsively rolling steel ball bearings in his hand. But not everyone backs off from Waters. The most aggressive grunt in the bunch is Pfc. Peterson. (Fun fact: This was the role that gave Denzel Washington his start, more than 20 years ago off-Broadway.) Peterson is given edgy and credible strength by Rasul Shafeeq, as he stands nose-to-nose with Waters.
On the critical night in question, Waters gets shitfaced at the base club and stumbles into a couple white officers, whom he mocks as he blathers on about his career frustrations ("I've killed for y'all, and nothin's changed."). One of the officers, a hostile Lieutenant Byrd (Eric Knudsen), is affronted by Waters and seems eager to teach the black sergeant a lesson. Teetering on the brink of combatant clichés, Fuller's script gains substantial heft by avoiding stereotypical racial conflicts and concentrating on his frequently unpredictable characters. Captain Taylor is less a cartoonish ogre than a simple man thrust into an entirely new situation, and Waters has an affecting charm that makes his rages even more terrifying. From a technical standpoint, the playwright smoothly links present action with the flashbacks, so the frequent time digressions never feel forced or intrusive.
Unfortunately, in this production, the simmering interracial conflict between the dueling captains never develops fully. Oliver Thompson and John Lynch, as Davenport and Taylor, respectively, cut fine figures in their khakis, but seem to rush their lines, particularly in their one-on-one dialogue scenes. As a result, some of the subtleties of their characters are blurred. But in general, director Vincent DePaul keeps the pace brisk and the characterizations sharp, as these soldiers lead us through another tragedy to the surprising and heavily ironic denouement.
There are insights aplenty in A Soldier's Play, especially when the dirt-poor and uneducated C.J. nails his sergeant with his observation, "Any man who doesn't know where he belongs has gotta be in a whole lot of pain." Meanwhile, Waters is brooding about his place in the scheme of things: "You gotta be like them [to get ahead], but the rules are fixed." This is one military ration with plenty to chew on.
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