A Fantastic Soldier's Play on Broadway Is About More Than Just Blair Underwood's Pecs
Underwood stars alongside David Alan Grier and Jerry O'Connell in a landmark Pulitzer winner making its Broadway debut.
Through the haze of Allen Lee Hughes's lighting, you can barely make them out at first, but the eagle-eyed will spot them right away. Their reputation precedes them to such a degree that they receive entrance applause for just existing. They are Blair Underwood's pecs, and they make a short cameo as Act 2 begins in A Soldier's Play, Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer winner receiving a long-delayed Broadway premiere at the American Airlines Theatre. Underwood, ever the professional and leader of an exceptional company of actors, plays off the moment with finesse. He knows that this groundbreaking drama, in an excellent production directed by Kenny Leon, is about more than just his chiseled physique.
Underwood plays Captain Richard Davenport, an Army lawyer sent to Fort Neal, Louisiana, during World War II to investigate the death of Sergeant Vernon Waters (David Alan Grier, exceptional in a challenging role), who was shot twice by an unseen gunman while drunkenly screaming, "They'll still hate you." Met with initial reluctance by fellow Captain Charles Taylor (a shouty Jerry O'Connell), who believes that a black man conducting the inquiry will hinder its success, Captain Davenport eventually rules out the initial suspects — the local branch of the KKK, followed by a pair of bigoted white soldiers (the detestable Nate Mann and Lee Aaron Rosen) — and turns his attention to the group of African-American soldiers who fell under Waters's own command.
Waters could be "two people sometimes," says Private James Wilkie (the emotive Billy Eugene Jones), who Waters stripped of his stripes after catching him drinking. "Warm one minute, ice the next." Through flashbacks, we see this description in action, as the ambitious Waters is openly hostile to his men, particularly the Southern black soldiers who he believes are holding back the entire race from advancing in the eyes of whites. Through this perspective, Fuller examines the hidden animosities and internal racism within the black community, a subject as daring and rarely spoken about now as it was when the Negro Ensemble Company premiered A Soldier's Play back in 1981.
Still, there's no dodging that A Soldier's Play is an old-fashioned, melodramatic legal procedural with stock characters and occasionally hoary dialogue. However, Leon and his cast lean into Fuller's text with such conviction that it feels surprisingly truthful (few actors could deliver a dusty line like "I do what the facts tell me, Captain — not you!" with as much veracity as Underwood), and, even more surprisingly, new. The issues and themes are so contemporary (or is it just that they unfortunately never went away?), and Fuller's words are so illuminating that it feels like A Soldier's Play could have been written yesterday.
Leon's staging amounts to his most haunting and heartfelt work since A Raisin in the Sun in 2014. It's slick and riveting (there are moments that really leave you on the edge of your seat) and, with a set (Derek McLane) and costumes (Dede Ayite) that look like they've jumped right out of old photos, the epitome of period authenticity.
His cast is right on the money, too, starting with Underwood, who commands the stage and delivers a classy, compelling performance from the moment he enters. Grier navigates the sharp edges of Sergeant Waters with military precision, and though he may not be as fearsome as stage and screen predecessor Adolph Caesar, all of Grier's work is rooted in the deeply human desire to fit in at whatever cost. The ensemble of soldiers couldn't be better, particularly J. Alphonse Nicholson, who endures a particularly harrowing journey as the main target of Waters's harassment.
Though the season is still relatively young, I think we'll be hard-pressed to find a revival as satisfying as A Soldier's Play, which wears its heart on its sleeve to expose some complicated feelings about American identity that people are too afraid to talk about.