‘A Soldier’s Play’ at Raven: Sifting through racial prejudice and rage to find a murderer
By Lawrence B. Johnson
In an obvious sense, Charles Fuller’s 1982 drama “A Soldier’s Play,” recently opened in a sharply detailed production at Raven Theatre, is about the virulent ugliness of racism as it persisted in the mid-20th century deep South. But more than that, Fuller’s story grapples with the despair and self-loathing that can infect the soul of an oppressed people.
At the onset of “A Soldier’s Play,” we see Tech/Sergeant Vernon P. Waters shot to death under cover of darkness by an unseen assailant. The ensuing drama centers on an investigation into who killed Waters, an African American on a racially segregated black training base in Louisiana at the height of World War II.
The investigator ordered in by the Washington brass is a Negro officer, a rarity at the time, Capt. Richard Davenport, whose appearance in officer’s uniform and bars draws an open rebuke from the post’s white commander, Capt. Charles Taylor. There will be no love lost here, but there will be a thorough investigation, and its revelation will not be what anyone could have foreseen.
Directed by Michael Menendian, with a spare multi-part military set designed by Andrei Onegin, Raven’s take on “A Soldier’s Play” captures the complicated emotions of a band of soldiers who are eager to prove themselves on the battle front but who also chafe under white branding as second-class citizens and warriors.
At the center of the narrative, told in flashbacks, is the ill-fated Sgt. Waters – an almost larger-than-life presence as portrayed by Antoine Pierre Whitfield. An angry man who despises the other Negroes in his company (he would never call them his fellows), Waters insists that his children will go to white colleges, meld into white society and rise above the humiliation he feels as a black man.
His contempt for the Negro soldiers under his command knows no bounds. He rages when he sees any sign of Negro behavior that he associates with white stereotypes of black people; and he sees it everywhere. Waters badgers, taunts, berates and sometimes beats his men. He even refuses to acknowledge pride in the troop’s success as a baseball team. They are trash to him, perhaps much as he is to himself. But when Whitfield’s maniacal sergeant gets in someone’s face, they pay attention, and so do we: His is a potent performance.
All this we observe in reconstruction as the investigating Capt. Davenport (Frank Pete) listens to the GIs’ various perspectives on life around Waters’ barracks. All have their axes to grind, but they also seem to agree that the mostly likely killers were members of the local Ku Klux Klan. True, Waters went too far in harassing one blues guitar-playing country boy called C.J. Memphis (Brian Keys in an irresistible turn), but it was the Klan. Had to be. And it wouldn’t be the first time, either.
One by one, with Capt. Davenport, we get to know the soldiers. They’re a typical mixed bag of young men brought joyfully or sullenly — but always forcefully — to life in guys like Private James Wilkie (Bradford Stevens), bitter over the stripes Waters stripped away, and the flinty Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Eric Walker), who spits fire right back at the overbearing Waters.
A further key, and clouding, character is another white officer, Lt. Byrd, whose hatred of black people leads him right up to the point of killing Waters. Anyway, that’s the story as the investigator gets it. In just two brief scenes as Byrd, Nicholas Bailey takes this production’s intensity up several notches.
Where the show went curiously, seriously awry, on opening night, was in the shared uneasiness of Frank Pete as the black investigating officer and Tim Walsh as the post commander and the investigator’s instant adversary. Both actors consistently forced lines in hesitant, unnatural speech rhythms, inevitably giving the impression of reciting rather than speaking. While first-night nerves could be held accountable, that aura of self-consciousness in these key characters dulled the play’s dramatic edge.
It’s always hard to know what portion of such blame to place at the director’s feet; in every other respect, however, Michael Menendian has shaped this play with the aplomb of a practiced story-teller. And Whitfield’s portrayal of the tormented Waters, right down to his last drunken harangue, will remain long in memory.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at TheatreinChicago.com
- Preview of Raven Theatre’s complete 2012-13 season: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com