A Soldier's Play
Second Stage Theatre's riveting revival of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize- winner features a terrific ensemble cast.
A well-crafted mystery, the play presents a complex picture of race and racism that is as relevant now as when it was written. Set in 1944, it revolves around the investigation into the murder of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel). Leading the inquiry is Captain Richard Davenport (Taye Diggs), an African-American lawyer and one of the few black men at the time who has been able to achieve the rank of captain. He initially encounters resistance from Captain Charles Taylor (Steven Pasquale), the white officer who commands the unit to which Waters belonged. Conversely, the black enlisted men with whom Davenport talks regard him with admiration and treat him with a casual ease that they would never show to a white officer.
The action shifts backwards and forwards in time; we see the events leading up to Waters' murder as well as the challenges Davenport faces as he pursues his investigation. However, the scenes in the past reflect the testimony of the men involved and are not necessarily reliable. The truth becomes a Rashomon-like puzzle that Davenport must solve by determining who's lying, what they're covering up, and why. The answers to these questions are much more complicated than they first appear.
Fuller takes an unflinching look at the ways in which racism permeates society. It's not as simple as whites hating blacks -- although that is shown, too. Internalized racism and questions of individual responsibility in regard to racial representation are also laid bare. Characters such as Captain Taylor have good intentions but find it difficult to overcome their own prejudices. Many of the other characters operate from understandable, sympathetic points of view yet end up making disastrous mistakes that contribute to the play's tragedy; the victory that Davenport achieves in solving the murder feels very hollow once all the facts are finally revealed.
Under Jo Bonney's brisk direction, the actors create nuanced portrayals that contribute greatly to the play's impact. Diggs has presence to spare and uses his charisma to good effect here; with a sly smile and a pair of dark glasses, his Captain Davenport maneuvers in the white man's world of military brass with surprising ease. While the role is not as showy as some of the supporting characters within the play, Diggs successfully brings to the fore Davenport's internal conflict once the investigation starts to lead in a direction different than the one he had anticipated.
The other 11 actors in the production are equally proficient. McDaniel chillingly enacts the darker aspects of Waters' personality yet also makes the man's motivations crystal clear. Anthony Mackie, as Private First Class Melvin Peterson, displays a quick temper coupled with a fierce sense of pride. Michael Genet is both hilarious and pathetic as the sniveling Private Wilkie, and Mike Colter brings warmth and dignity -- as well as a powerful singing voice -- to the role of Private C.J. Memphis.