*How does a black soldier in the Jim Crow South deal with the inner battle of self-hatred, resentment, anger, and pain of serving in the military? In “A Soldier’s Play,” written by Charles Fuller and directed by Charles Weldon, these raw emotions lead to an explosive and tragic climax.
The play takes us through a segregated U.S. army base in Louisiana during WWII, where the murder of a despised black tech sergeant, Vernon C. Waters (Gil Tucker), and the suicide of an enlisted soldier, Private C.J. Memphis (Jimmy Gary Jr.), are being investigated.
The Negro Ensemble Company new production of “A Soldier’s Play,” scheduled to run through March 4, at the Gene Frankel Theatre, was a riveting whodunit that retained the mystery and intrigue of classic military courtroom dramas. However, there was nothing ordinary or formulaic about the divine cast bringing this story to life.
Captain Richard Davenport (Chaz Reuben), an African American lawyer, is sent to investigate the murder of Sergeant Waters, who was shot three times and dies, drunkenly muttering angry retorts, drowning in sorrow and guilt over his complicity in the suicide of Private CJ Memphis.
Jimmy Gary Jr. gave a masterful and heartbreaking performance playing the innocent C.J. Memphis—a blues singing, guitar-strumming “geechie,” as Waters called him—whose gentle soul evaporates in a jail cell because he was punished for a crime he didn’t commit.
Davenport, the play’s narrator, is sharp and clear about his assessments and determination to find out who committed this crime. He is aware of the condescension of the white superior officers, who consider his investigation useless. But he is also encouraged by the enlisted men who beam with pride and excitement to greet and congratulate the dapper Davenport, one of the first black officers they’ve ever seen, allowing him the confidence he needs to proceed.
The military unit he investigates is mostly made up of baseball players, itching to fight for their country and show what “Negro” soldiers can do. Nevertheless, any excitement, laughter or celebrations of any form between the men was vehemently snuffed out by the demeaning disposition of a tight-fisted and unforgiving Sergeant Waters, portrayed in an exceptional performance by Gil Tucker. His powerful lines invoke visceral shockwaves through me every time he said the word “nigga,” and he said it often, without apology.
The specifics of Sarge’s disposition were revealed through flashbacks and present-day conversations recalling incidents that demonstrate how he treated the soldiers under his command. Through harsh interrogations, Davenport was able to piece together the explosive truth of how the insidious undercurrents of self-hatred, fueled by racism, and revenge took a man’s life.
The transformative power of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play still heals, and hopefully, we all will walk away contemplating something deeper than just the travails of military life during America’s recent past.