Review: A Soldier’s Story at Knight Theater
By Perry Tannenbaum
Premiered Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four in late 1981, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 – and had enough staying power for the original script, with its electrifying closing line, to finally make it to the Broadway stage 39 years later, just before the pandemic closed it down. Now the touring production, with more than the usual complement of actors who appeared on W. 42nd Street in the Tony Award-winning revival, is onstage for a two-week run at Knight Theater.
Set in 1944 at Fort Neal, Louisiana, this military whodunit still sizzles. Bigoted white officers lord it over justifiably resentful black recruits, who are prized only for their baseball talent and saddled with the meanest grunt work as soon as they triumphantly leave the diamond. These ballplayers’ deepest ambition, it turns out, isn’t to remain undefeated and play the New York Yankees. No, they’re itching even more mightily to be deployed to combat in Europe, where they will trounce Hitler’s Nazi army and prove themselves – and their race.
And if you didn’t know this already: all these fine athlete-soldiers can sing and dance.
Into this typical Deep South cauldron – stiffened with military spit and polish, flavored with Jim Crow scorn and bitterness – Fuller dropped his nuclear core, inspired by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.
Sergeant Vernon C. Waters and Private C. J. Memphis are the counterparts of Melville’s naval petty officer John Claggart and foretopman Billy Budd. Even more than Iago, Othello’s treacherous lieutenant, Claggart’s hatred toward Billy was pure and unprovoked. Sergeant Waters, the highest-ranking black soldier at Fort Neal and manager of the awesome ballclub, is a unique kind of racist. Seeing himself and his subordinates through the eyes of his white superiors – and America at-large – Waters reserves his keenest hatred for his own race.
In particular, Waters despises the lazy, bowing-and-scraping, singing, clowning, and “geechy” Negroes whom he sees as keeping his race from advancing. Waters applies the N-word to those soldiers as contemptuously as a white man would and assigns himself the mission of diabolically hunting them down. Though the greenest envy is also at the heart of their common DNA, you could say that Waters eclipses the wickedness of Claggart and Iago, for Memphis is merely the most recent of the sergeant’s kills.
By the time Captain Richard Davenport – also black, dispatched from DC – arrives at Fort Neal, both Memphis and Waters are dead. The mystery that Davenport must now solve is who killed the sergeant? We’ve swiveled away from the tragedies of Billy Budd and Othello into the modern realm of murder mysteries and police procedurals, from Hollywood to the BBC. Murder victims need to make as many enemies as possible so that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, and all their pulp novel and TV series descendants have as many suspects as possible to brilliantly glean through.
Captain Charles Taylor, who brandishes a graduation ring from all-white West Point in welcoming Davenport to the base, is amazed, wary, and frankly skeptical that this black officer is the right man for the job. Yet Taylor also has his doubts about the widespread assumption that the KKK is responsible for Waters’ murder, which only multiplies Taylor’s skepticism. If white officers are to blame, how will Davenport manage to get at the truth? Worse, if the black DC outsider gathers sufficient evidence to charge a white man or white men – Waters was shot twice – how can anybody expect the charge to stick?
So the ongoing suspicion, skepticism, and open antagonism between Taylor and Davenport gradually turn out to be quite rational on both sides as it becomes clearer and clearer that Taylor really wishes to be rid of his bad apples. Each time Norm Lewis as Davenport and William Connell are alone together, the tension between them crackles, building to an Act 2 climax when they’re nose-to-nose, ready to rumble.
Much the same is true of Eugene Lee as Waters, each time he appears in flashbacks during Davenport’s interrogations. Unlike the Captains, Waters seems to revel in confrontations, not merely to show who’s boss but also as a prime tool in entrapping the “geechies” he has targeted for takedowns. Aside from a fistfight with Tarik Lowe as PFC Peterson and his demonic provocation of Sheldon D. Brown as the persecuted Memphis, there are numerous episodes of cruel disrespect, scornful scolding, arrogant orders, and stone-faced bullying for Lee to lean into.
Howard Overshown as Private James Wilkie gets about as close to being Waters’ confidante – and stooge – as possible, but only after the cruel monster has stripped Wilkie of the three stripes he has earned over 10 years in the Army. He can offer Davenport insights into Waters’ true feelings about his men. There is some slickness, polish, and deceptive acceptance in Overshown’s portrayal as Wilkie seeks to regain Waters’ favor and those lost stripes, but we also glimpse the grudge and his seething resentment as the sadistic sergeant demands more and more from him. Little sympathy flows from Wilkie’s bunkmates, and certainly no love.
And as he disintegrates late in life, Waters gets sufficiently soused in a couple of flashbacks to stumble back to the base disheveled and drunk, ranting and raving in the presence of white officers, and – worst of all – ignoring their commands. So it’s a role that offers Lee a wide spectrum of personal corruption to embody, from steely ferocity to weak-kneed intoxication, with a couple of moments where we can empathize a little with the sergeant’s twisted viewpoint.
Lee is nothing less than magnificent. The only slack we need to cut him is when Waters challenges Peterson to settle their differences hand-to-hand. It should be axiomatic to us, as it is to Peterson, that Waters will beat the crap out of him, but Lowe is noticeably younger and taller than Lee. Unlike the 1984 film adaptation (A Soldier’s Story, screenplay by Fuller), where no less than Denzel Washington squares off and loses the fistfight, the action here at the Knight doesn’t draw a flashback, consigned to the wings when Peterson follows Waters offstage.
Directing the show here and on Broadway, Kenny Leon points up the advantages of the stage version over the film. In one way, Leon makes Fuller’s action more classical than Melville’s or Shakespeare’s. Coming and going from their interrogations, the black soldiers observe a military regimentation so strict that it gradually becomes ceremonial. Each one of them carves perfect perpendiculars entering and leaving Davenport’s office: left-face twice entering, about-face once when the questioning is done, and right-face twice exiting. They all seem on the exact same track, and they all salute so religiously that Davenport occasionally seems unnerved by it.
Whether these actions are evidence of their respect for top brass or a reverence reserved for the first black officer they have ever seen, we can easily recognize the difference when the soldiers are out of uniform or under Waters’ command. Discipline slackens and those perpendiculars vanish. These differences are subtly echoed by the contrasts in Derek Malone’s set design and Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting, bright and official for the Captains’ offices, dark and gloomy for the barracks and cots.
Action is so gripping and intense that we easily overlook the flaws in Fuller’s plot. So much infighting is happening on base that it seems almost natural that a watershed moment of World War 2 would happen smack in the middle of Davenport’s three-day investigation. We’re also so riveted by Lee’s ferocity, Connell’s grudging evolution, and Lewis’s cool charisma that we fail to step back and realize that Captain Taylor could have solved this case – before Davenport even arrived from DC – by saying five simple words: “Run a complete forensics review.”
Of course, forensics wouldn’t have helped Memphis when a murder weapon was planted under his bed. Unless some fool left his fingerprints on it. Strumming a guitar and singing sweet blues, Brown is so powerfully insouciant that we have no trouble believing that he is a once-in-a-generation talent at shortstop, able to clout home runs with the same nonchalance. Even when Waters provokes him, Brown has Memphis’s serenity giving way to spontaneity. There’s an almost stammering incomprehension to Memphis at this climax that links him to Billy Budd.
That primitive gloom we find in the soldiers’ shoddy barracks helps us forget that scientific crime-solving dates back to the era of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, let alone in the Perry Mason courtroom dramas, born in the ‘30s, where ballistic experts often testified. Following Davenport’s diligent process, we’re guided through a pungent set of truths that remind us how far we have progressed from the Jim Crow days to integration and beyond.
Yet we’re reminded how the oppressors of old have spawned descendants who still struggle to hold their control over non-whites and non-Christians. Their desperate efforts to fortify institutional racism and sustain white privilege are keeping full equality tantalizingly out of grasp – even as it comes more vividly into view.