A black sergeant cries out in the night, “They still hate you,” then is shot twice by an unseen killer and falls dead. Set in 1944 at Fort Neal, a segregated army camp in Louisiana, Charles Fuller’s imposing drama which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, tracks the investigation of this murder. A Soldier’s Play is more than a detective story: it is a tough, incisive exploration of racial tensions and ambiguities among blacks and between blacks and whites that gives no easy answers and assigns no simple blame.
Captain Richard Davenport (Dominic Daniel), a rare black Army officer, has been sent to investigate the killing of Sgt. Waters (Victor Isaac). Capt. Taylor (a terrific Mike Lanahan), the white C.O., tries to discourage him because he feels the assignment of a black investigator means the case is to be swept under the rug. Capt. Davenport perseveres and probes deeper. Initially, the primary suspects are local Ku Klux Klan. Later, bigoted white soldiers fall under suspicion. Ultimately, Davenport discovers the killer was one of the black soldiers under Waters’ command. Each one had a motive for the killing. As Davenport interviews witnesses and suspects, we see flashbacks showing what Sergeant Waters was like and how he treated his men. Waters picks on black soldiers like outspoken Alabama soldier Pfc. Melvin Peterson (Jefferson Reid) and Private C.J. Memphis (the soulful Ryan Lacey) because he loathed “lazy, shiftless Negroes” who conformed to old-fashioned racist stereotypes. This angers Memphis’s friend and ally Corp. Bernard Cobb (Demetrius Butler). Waters also verbally and physically abuses the men in his charge like and Pvt. James Wilke (Rosney Mauger), Pvt. Anthony Smalls (Christopher Gardner) and Pvt. Louis Henson (Bryshan White). Davenport ultimately solves the case and the answer to the riddle is more shocking than the murder itself.
At over ninety minutes, Daniel keeps the pace of this riveting play moving with polished stoicism throughout. The ensemble is very solid especially the soldiers who make up company baseball team. There are terrific scenes in the barracks where the audience becomes immersed in the world of these characters and their struggles. While there is no true standout (the mark of a good ensemble), each performer admirably fills a cog in the machine and completes the world that director Victor Isaac has created. Filling out the rest of the cast is Tyler Fairbank (Cpt.Wilcox), Lt. Byrd (Austin Springer) and Gabriel Croom as Cpl. Ellis.
The preview performance which I watched was still dealing with some lighting tech issues which, I’m sure, will be worked out as performances continue. Overall, I was quite impressed to not only see this difficult piece mounted at the Fringe but to see these artists pull of a terrific production.