On the surface the play unfolds like an episode of a network TV procedural with the questioning of witnesses, flashbacks that explore relevant relationships and some misdirection about who did the deed. But what won the play its Pulitzer was Fuller’s devastating meditation on the effects of systemic racism.
The original cast turned out to be special too. It included a young Denzel Washington and a young Samuel L. Jackson. But the performances that knocked me out back then and that I still remember vividly now were by Adolph Caesar as the murdered Sergeant Vernon C. Waters and Larry Riley as C.J. Memphis, one of the privates under Waters' command.
Riley, on the other hand, played Memphis as a naive but sweet country boy who had a way with singing the blues and making friends that endeared him to the other guys in the unit—and to those of us in the audience as well.
That’s not at all the fault of the play, which offers as sharp a commentary about both institutionalized and internalized racism as it did when it debuted in 1981 and when it was turned into the Oscar-nominated film “ A Soldier’s Story” three years later. The problem now, I fear, rests in the direction by Kenny Leon.
This production is cooly intellectual rather than viscerally emotional. It focuses more on the look of things (the set is bo-ho chic and the men are buff) than on what the play is trying to say about the indignities and thwarted opportunities that segregation wrought during that pre-Civil Rights era.
Nor has Leon helped his actors distinguish the individuals in the barracks who represent the different ways black people in that time dealt with those burdens, from going-along-to get-along to barely containing the anger that would later erupt in the militancy of the ‘60s.
Similarly, football player-turned-actor Nnamdi Asomugha fades into the crowd as the firebrand Private Peterson, the role that helped launch Denzel Washington’s career.
All of that is audience-plesing (the sight of Underwood’s six pack abs stops the show as women and men hoot and clap in delight) but the eye candy detracts from the play.
I'm willing to admit that I may be somewhat blinded by my memories of the original production but back then, all that was needed were Fuller's fine words, a cast of committed actors and the plain-spoken direction of the NEC's artistic director Douglas Turner Ward.
Still, the fact that this revival has been so well received by critics and audiences confirms that A Soldier's Play belongs in the canon of great American plays. And so I find myself in the strange position of being disappointed in a production but still believing that if you can, you ought to see it.