The impoverished black faces plastered across national news media during the post-Katrina exodus from New Orleans were a sobering reminder that the inequalities exposed in Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” set on a segregated Louisiana military base during WWII, are by no means consigned to the past. A murder investigation that serves to explore the complex shades of racism, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning play perhaps remains too entrenched in whodunit mechanics to bring a full charge to its deeper issues. But Second Stage’s taut revival enlists a strong ensemble to tell an engrossing story of deeply rooted injustice.
The original Negro Ensemble Company staging was probably the group’s most successful production. It was followed in 1984 by Norman Jewison’s film version (retitled “A Soldier’s Story”), starring many of the same NEC actors, notably Denzel Washington and Adolph Caesar. The play is crafted in a sturdy, distinctly cinematic style, intercutting interrogations with flashback reconstructions, occasionally punctuated by direct-address insights from the central character, which could just as easily be screen voiceovers.
Director Jo Bonney perhaps fosters a too-contemporary feel for a play set in 1944, but her staging is commandingly vigorous and spare, fueled by conviction and tension.
If there’s something oddly muted at the production’s core, it’s as much in the writing as in Taye Diggs’ solid interpretation of central figure Captain Richard Davenport. Despite the relative power of his rank, Davenport remains something of a cipher next to the more volatile elements around him, and Diggs’ natural charisma and authority inevitably seem slightly dimmed.
Davenport has been assigned by D.C. to investigate the murder of drill Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel), the much feared and detested hard-ass responsible for a black Fort Neal company, shot while returning to the base one night after a drinking binge. The black soldiers suspect it was a Klan killing, while commanding officer Captain Taylor (Steven Pasquale) believes it was two white officers but is rendered powerless to charge them by a colonel who wants the incident swiftly buried.
The theme of men being neutered of their power by ingrained prejudices, preconceptions and hatred is well articulated in Fuller’s play, as is the demeaning marginalization of black soldiers at the time within the military hierarchy.
To the soldiers, Davenport’s elevated position — he’s the first black officer any of them have ever seen — represents a reason for pride and admiration even if his circumspect nature keeps them at a distance. To white officer Taylor, the investigating lawyer is further evidence that finding the killers is a low priority: “The local people aren’t going to charge a white man in this parish on the strength of an investigation conducted by a Negro,” he insists.
Davenport’s methodical questioning of the men uncovers their individual grievances against Waters, in particular his violent clash with outspoken Alabama soldier Peterson (Anthony Mackie).
Waters’ harshest treatment was reserved for the Southern blacks in the company, men he felt furthered the ignorant stereotype that was keeping the Negro down: “If it wasn’t for all you Southern niggahs, yessahin’, bowin’ and scrapin’, scratchin’ your heads, white folks wouldn’t think we were all fools,” he says mockingly. He found a prime target for his bitter resentment in sweet-natured blues guitar-player C.J. Memphis (Mike Colter). A soulful giant manipulated by Waters into a tragic corner, C.J., paradoxically, is the only one of the men to see beyond Waters’ hostility to the inner pain that feeds it.
Working on Neil Patel’s simple yet highly effective semi-circular barracks set and aided by David Weiner’s precision lighting scheme, Bonney puts the cast through their paces with both militaristic discipline and a relaxed, naturalistic handle on the text. The actors largely refrain from stagy delivery, instead finding loose, overlapping rhythms in the dialogue that might not always seem in period but lend immediacy to the drama.
While McDaniel’s Waters veers toward heavyhanded caricature — the meaty part is perhaps too literally emblematic of pathological self-hatred to convey real pathos — he lends weight to the man’s conflicts. Strong impressions are made by Colter, Pasquale and Michael Genet, the latter as ass-kissing Private Wilkie, whose opportunism is dictated by the narrow legitimate opportunities for advancement.
Playing a man whose strength of character gives him more rebellious backbone than his fellow grunts (the part originated by Washington), Mackie’s measured gravitas remains in the service of what is very much an ensemble drama, not an individual showcase. After disappointing stage vehicles in “Drowning Crow” and “McReele,” this fine actor has a role here worthy of his talent.