The Negro Ensemble Company hit a peak in 1981 with its celebrated Off-Broadway premiere of A Soldier’s Play, which enjoyed a year-long run and fittingly nabbed numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, the NEC has struggled through decades of funding troubles and organizational woes. Yet this estimable company endures today — the year 2017, in fact, marks its fiftieth anniversary — to currently offer a revival of Charles Fuller’s vivid drama regarding homicide and racial hatred at a segregated Army base in Louisiana during the Second World War.
The sketchy scenery and wardrobe for director Charles Weldon’s rough-around-the-edges production — which is running at Theatre 80 St. Marks — makes plain the NEC’s shoestring budget. Fortunately, Fuller’s sharply written text, which is partly a detective story and partly a study in racism of different varieties, remains so compelling that these sparse visuals and some not-altogether-proficient acting by a twelve-member company scarcely diminishes its power to engage an audience.
Chaz Reuben invests a calm, soft-spoken, yet steely determination into his Captain Davenport, a black officer called on to investigate the murder of a fellow black serviceman, Sergeant Waters, portrayed with flinty authority by Gil Tucker as a tough drillmaster who does not treat his enlisted men equally. Unexpected prejudices are gradually revealed in flashbacks as Davenport interviews a number of suspects, black and white, at the camp. Among them, Adrain Washington as an insubordinate soldier (a role originated by Denzel Washington in the 1981 production) and Aaron Sparks as a hair-trigger-tempered officer provide the most forceful impressions.
Fuller steeps his story in the racial oppression of that Southern place and period; the white officers at the camp frankly express their unease at having to deal with Davenport on an equal footing, while also questioning his very ability to solve the murder. In many other plays, such blatant racism might be shrugged off by viewers simply as the ugly attitude that prevailed way back when. But what proves to be surprising — even disturbing — here is the inner hate Fuller later reveals as burning under the skin of the murdered man himself.