More than 40 years on, ‘A Soldier’s Play’ is profoundly and chillingly relevant

Charles Fuller’s writing is tightly structured but also deeply nuanced, and the ensemble work here could not be better, with an array of fully realized performances.

Howard Overshown (from left), Malik Esoj Childs, Tarik Lowe, Eugene Lee, Will Adams, Sheldon D. Brown and Branden Davon Lindsay in the national touring production of “A Soldier’s Play,” at the CIBC Theatre. Photo by Joan Marcus

Howard Overshown (from left), Malik Esoj Childs, Tarik Lowe, Eugene Lee (center), Will Adams, Sheldon D. Brown and Branden Davon Lindsay in the national touring production of “A Soldier’s Play,” at the CIBC Theatre.

Joan Marcus

“A Soldier’s Play” should be produced more often. Full stop.

It’s not exactly a forgotten play, but despite earning Charles Fuller the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and being made into a film soon after (re-titled “A Soldier’s Story”), it has never been fully recognized as a classic. It is.

We know that now because, over 40 years after it premiered at the Negro Ensemble Company (with a young Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson in the ensemble), the play, now on the road following a pandemic-abbreviated run on Broadway, feels shockingly contemporary.

Set in 1944 at an army base in Louisiana, “A Soldier’s Play” is a military-set police procedural and murder mystery. Vernon Waters, a Black sergeant on the base, has been killed, a crime that most assume was committed by the local Klan. A Black lawyer, Captain Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis), has been sent to conduct an investigation, a choice which, to the base’s white commanding officer (William Connell), means the higher-ups have decided to continue brushing these events under the rug.

‘A Soldier’s Play’

Untitled

When: Through April 16

Where: CIBC Theater, 18 W Monroe

Tickets: $35-$105

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission

As Davenport questions the members of Waters’ company, we see flashbacks of a story that becomes a peeling onion. We learn of another death that occurred on the base, and we begin to learn more about Waters himself, a hardened leader with strong views on how Black men should, not just behave, but the way they should be, how and what they should represent.

Played expertly by Eugene Lee (another member of the original ensemble), Waters is the core of “A Soldier’s Play.” Although the title is intentionally generic, and there is plenty of room for interpretation, if we had to choose one soldier for that title it would be Waters. He has absorbed all the lessons of both the broader culture and the military one and tried to follow the path to achievement. He has, in other words, been a good soldier. But he’s also a villain, a despicable figure who humiliates his troops even more than he disciplines them.

Norm Lewis stars as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of “A Soldier’s Play.”

Captain Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis) is assigned to investigate the murder of a sergeant on an army base in “A Soldier’s Play.”

Joan Marcus

Fuller’s writing is tightly structured but also deeply nuanced. He uses some broad types to invest each company member with a personality — the intellectual (Tarik Lowe), the lady’s man (Will Adams), the smart aleck (Branden Davon Lindsay) — but over time makes them real. Above all, Fuller, who died last year at the age of 83, wrote playable characters. He was the definition of an actor’s writer, a fact that becomes especially apparent in a standout performance from Chicago actor Sheldon D. Brown, depicting his character C.J. Memphis with a fully realized combination of physical power and emotional sensitivity.

Director Kenny Leon invests “A Soldier’s Play” with his trademark energy and aesthetic vitality. There’s a plethora of admirable details here. Leon emphasizes the musical moments and brings a sense of physicality to the way the troops unwind after a baseball game (the company was originally brought together for that purpose) to the stylized way they march during a scene transition. The set design from Derek McClane is bare but lit by Allen Lee Hughes with intense atmospherics.

The murdered Sgt. Vernon Waters (Eugene Lee) is the subject of a complex investigation on a 1944 Louisiana army base in “A Soldier’s Play.”

Eugene Lee stars as Sgt. Vernon Waters, the complex Army sergeant whose anger and resentment toward the Black soldiers he commands, lead to fatal consequences “A Soldier’s Play.”

Joan Marcus

Unfortunately, there’s a problematic miscasting at the center here. Norm Lewis, one of the biggest musical theater stars and a truly outstanding performer, brings to the investigator Davenport a calm, fully mature polish to what needs to be more a cocky up-and-comer. Even more, he makes the character simply too impenetrable. Known for his performance as Javert in “Les Miserables,” Lewis’ performance here feels as if he’s channeling that character’s sense of resolute moral certainty to a man who needs to engage with ambiguity and gut-driven suspicions.

That said, the ensemble work here could not be better, with an array of fully realized performances. And thematically, “A Soldier’s Play” comes across as absolutely just as relevant, even as jarring, as it was when it was written. That says something about Fuller’s commitment to digging deeply into what makes his characters — especially Waters — tick. It also is clear that Fuller himself served in the military, since he brings to this environment a relaxed authenticity. And the racism that he depicts ranges from the outwardly expressed to the deeply buried.

Alas, he could have called this work “An American Play.”

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