It had been awhile since Gothamist was at Second Stage, so we were glad to find it in the excellent form we remembered with its latest show, a revival of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. Fuller won the 1982 Pulitzer in drama for it, and was nominated for an Academy Award when it was turned into a movie (A Soldier’s Story), so we went in with high expectations, and fortunately those didn’t jinx anything. We can’t claim to be able to compare this production with the original, but taking the current one on its own terms, we thought the cast top-notch and the staging well-paced and just spare enough to ensure that the events at hand are clearly situated but not overwhelmed with extras. Those events, though technically in 1944 and being viewed from Fuller’s early 1980s vantage point, make the play’s central subject one that will, sadly, probably never cease to be current and pressing – racial divisions. The setting of Louisiana, so recently the real-life stage where the differences between African American and white people in this country played out, only heightens the awareness you have throughout that A Soldier’s Play is still painfully relevant on that level, but it’s also, and maybe above all, a highly effective dramatization of the struggle within the black community to determine which values are going to dominate and act as a cohesive force – something that is just as ongoing but not usually as high-profile, so Fuller’s addition to the conversation, and this strong revival of it, are all the more welcome.
At the heart of the story is Tech/Sergeant Waters (James McDaniel), who was murdered before the main action of the play; the investigation of his death and the ugly racial discord – both inter and internal – that it dredges up give the play its form, which, while not all that suspenseful, still allows for a process of uncoiling that keeps you totally involved in what’s going on. Captain Richard Davenport (Taye Diggs) has been sent in to figure out what happened, and of course the minute he sets foot on the Army base he’s viewed with suspicion and hostility because he’s a black officer, an entity most of the men at Fort Neal, black or white, didn’t really think existed. Diggs, in aviator sunglasses that Davenport claims make him look like General Macarthur, has a great stage presence, very comfortable and balanced between subtle shifts in facial expression and a palpable, projected physical aggression. After an intense confrontation (the first of several) with Captain Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale) – the white officer who had been in charge of looking into Waters’ death and who doesn’t appreciate a black lawyer being brought in to take over – Davenport interviews the soldiers who were subordinate to Waters. Flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, summoned by their accounts of events blend seamlessly with the present, but for all the talking that goes on the only thing anyone really finds out for sure until the very last is how deep the racial tensions run, and that’s not really news.
What is different, at least in comparison with most other plays about race, is how insistently Fuller probes the conflicts within races. There are only 3 white characters, so while there’s no love lost between them and the black soldiers, that (and the Army’s utter disdain for its black conscripts) are just the obvious problems everyone thinks about, like everyone blames the Klan at first for Waters’ death. Fuller is more interested in the black soldiers’ problems with each other, beginning with Waters’ seething contempt for Southern blacks, whom he sees as no more than “bowing and scraping” Sambos. Waters is especially contemptuous of Private C.J. Memphis, a friendly guy who comes from a Mississippi life steeped in folklore and blues (Mike Colter is perfect in the gentle-giant role). So while the inequalities between the black and white soldiers and townspeople might remind you of Katrina and its aftermath, the struggles within the black community is really the more important story, and that puts us more in mind of Bill Cosby’s instantly infamous speech of a year and a half ago and the discussion that resulted from that. One of the best things about this play is the way it prevents you (unless you’re a total ideologue) from really being able to sign on to one version of things, one viewpoint; even when you more or less “know” who killed Waters and why, there are still kernels of truth in the rationales that had been presented previously. Fuller makes almost all the characters vulnerable and sympathetic, at least to a degree, at some point, so though you might agree with the play’s characters and feel the greatest scorn for Private James Wilkie (Michael Genet), who sucks up to everyone and can’t stand up for himself, just as you instinctively admire the fiery Pfc. Melvin Peterson (Anthony Mackie), nothing is cut and dried. It’s the kind of play where you leave the theater perhaps not quite as sure as you were before about your assumptions regarding race, debating with your friends how to interpret elements of what you’ve just seen, which characters were more in the right or wrong, and in Gothamist’s opinion that’s one of the best things a show can do.
Details: A Soldier’s Play is at Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St., until Nov. 13. Shows are Tues. 7pm, Wed.-Sat. 8pm, Sat. 2pm, Sun. 3pm. Buy tickets here.
Photos by Joan Marcus.