A Soldier’s Play is really two plays folded into one, and the principal merit of Jo Bonney’s new production at Second Stage, as compared to the original Negro Ensemble Company production of 1981, is that its narrative clarity, and the smooth overall quality of its acting, have made the two stories seem one at last. As a result, we can see now how the two stories build on and reflect each other, and Charles Fuller’s play, which always had power at its core, now seems to hold that power throughout.
The two stories deal with a murder and the investigation of that murder respectively. At a fictional fort in Louisiana during World War II, Waters, a black sergeant, has been shot. On a base full of openly bigoted white officers, near a redneck town in a Jim Crow state, the natural assumption is that the killing was a racist act. For purposes of goodwill, which include placating the national black press, the army needs an investigation, but it also needs to avoid alienating the town, the state, and its own officer class. Its solution is to send as its investigator a black lawyer, who has attained the rank of captain with an MP unit in a nearby state: The assumption is that he will receive zero cooperation, file a pro forma “murder by persons unknown” report, and return to his unit with the case quietly filed away and forgotten. The captain himself, bristling with attitude and Howard University degrees, has other ideas, and soon finds, sometimes to his dismay, that the case has twists and turns that challenge both the standard official assumptions and his standard reaction to them. The conclusion, in which the captain gets to the bottom of the case and the murderer is revealed, makes nobody feel any better: A white officer and a black officer do not become friends (grudging admiration is as far as they get), both blacks and whites are given plenty to search their hearts about, and history erases the story from every memory but the captain’s.
This summary, though the best I can offer without either spoiling the play’s surprises or relentlessly rehashing its details, is itself misleading, a demonstration of how easily one can fall into the elegant trap Fuller has laid for prior assumptions of every kind. In fact, though the ongoing narrative of Captain Davenport’s investigation is the nominal focus of interest—the play’s “official” story, as it were—the bulk of the drama we see, largely in flashback, concerns interaction between the dead sergeant and the black soldiers under his command; white racism is ever present in the consciousness but only mentioned in passing, like the bad air quality in a city plagued by smog. And it turns out, as the flashbacks burgeon under Captain Davenport’s persistent, needling interrogation, and as we watch him being needled in turn by Captain Taylor, the white officer who is the platoon’s official commander, that there are other forms of racism, and other prejudices besides racism, which can be equally murderous.
The original NEC production demarcated the past and present scenes almost too rigidly, with two fine actors, Peter Friedman and the late Charles Brown, playing the rival captains’ wrangling with a stiff austerity that suggested some antique Noh drama rather than a naturalistic dispute between U.S. Army officers. As a result, the life of the platoon in flashback seemed even more vivid, animated as it was by three spectacular performances: the late Adolph Caesar as the harsh, rule-book-wielding sergeant; the late Larry Riley as the sweet-souled, guitar-picking country boy who becomes his nemesis; and a then unknown young actor named Denzel Washington, whose cold, contained fury, as the argumentative Private Peterson, still makes me shudder in recollection.
Nothing as dazzling as these three performances occurs in Bonney’s production, but something almost equally gratifying does: Because her staging, abetted by David Weiner’s sharp yet fluid lighting design, divides past and present much less stringently than the original, the play’s narrative flow is unblocked. We now see the events on a continuum, where the enlisted men’s frustration with Sergeant Waters and Captain Davenport’s cat-and-mouse duel with Captain Taylor are part of an ongoing pattern instead of carefully schematized parallels. Less richly characterized as individuals in the playing, the men now seem more convincingly members of a platoon, which it’s much easier to grasp as a microcosm of a larger army and of the giant society that maintains it. Celebrating and shaping its portrayal of individuals, the original production seemed much more a study in what can happen in individual cases; the current production sends the problem up through all the strata of race and class, an intellectual journey for which Fuller’s text gives ample support.
Nor does the lack of dazzle mean that the performances lack individual substance. Taye Diggs and Steven Pasquale, as the sparring captains, move with startling, energizing ease from cautious geniality to blunt hostility; Dorian Missick draws a convincing portrait of the hapless Private Henson and Michael Genet a juicily theatrical rendering of the embittered Private Wilkie. And although James McDaniel lacks both Caesar’s grizzled presence and his unforgettably raspy voice (it was like the crackling of underbrush in a forest fire), McDaniel makes an impressive, discomfitingly believable Waters from the cool scorn of his first big speech to the mass of drunken, malicious wooze he has crumpled into by the end.