Writing about New York during the summer of 1943, James Baldwin recalled that Black soldiers received their military training in the south: thus, “the people I knew felt, mainly, a peculiar kind of relief when they knew their boys were being shipped out of the south, to do battle overseas.” Death at the hands of the Nazis was somehow more palatable than death at the hands of one’s countrymen.
Charles Fuller’s 1982 drama A Soldier’s Play begins with the second kind of death. Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (David Alan Grier) is found the victim of an execution-style murder. The obvious answer is the Klan, as lynchings are almost routine on Fort Neal. From the beginning, however, the pieces don’t quite fit. “Something’s wrong,” the sycophantic Private James Wilkie (Billy Eugene Jones) tells the investigating officer, Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood), when he realizes Waters was found with his insignia intact. “Them Klan boys don’t like to see us in these uniforms. They usually take the stripes and stuff off, before they lynch us.”
In one sense, then, the play works as a crackerjack murder mystery. Waters was brutal to the soldiers he commanded, so in addition to local bigots and racist officers, his own all-Black company is under suspicion. But the play is also about surviving in a military that is both white supremacist and one of the few professional spaces in which Black men could achieve positions of power. Waters and Davenport, two of these men, serve as a study in contrast: the former believes he will be rewarded for his loyalty, while the latter places his faith in ideals rather than institutions.
As Davenport, Underwood is firm but authoritative, no doubt aware that he must insist on the respect due his rank while at the same time accommodate skittish whites. Grier, who played another part in the original production, nicely balances Waters’ villainy with his tragedy. “They’ll still hate you!” he cries out to himself moments before his death. The revelation echoes through this first-rate revival.
A Soldier’s Play runs through March 15th at the American Airlines Theatre. 227 W. 42nd Street New York, NY. 1 hour 55 minutes. One intermission.