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A Riveting Revival of the Pulitzer Prize-Winning “A Soldier’s Play” Now Playing At The Ahmanson Theatre

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Murder mysteries, whether cinematic or theatrical, are one of the most popular subjects. The list is quite long, from Agatha Christie’s series to James Crumley’s, The Last Good Kiss, ranked as perhaps the most influential crime novel of the past century. However, one of the most compelling murder mysteries is Charles Fuller’s military drama A Soldier’s Play, which premiered on Broadway in 1981. His brilliant work received the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 1982 as well as scoring a 2020 Tony for Best Revival of a Play.  

The Roundabout Theatre Company’s production, helmed by Kenny Leon’s sharp, immaculate direction, begins inside a military barracks in Ft. Neal, Louisiana, set designed by Derek McClane. A spotlight by lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes hovers over each of the immaculate military cots. The action begins with a single voice softly singing a chain gang or a Mississippi “Negro Prison Song,” with its pulsating rhythms, grunts, and groans. Slowly, other voices join in, volume increases, and thus begins two hours of an intriguing hunt for the killer of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, a black non-commissioned racist officer fabulously characterized by Eugene Lee. He hates his own race and threatens the black soldiers with such utter contempt and cruelty that any number of people might have killed him – from the Ku Klux Klan to one of his own men. 

Norm Lewis as ‘Captain Richard Davenport’ in the National Tour of  ‘A Soldier’s Play’ on stage at the  Ahmanson Theatre through June 25, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Although you might say his wish for black people to hold better places in society is wonderful, his message is totally antagonistic. In one of his temper tantrums, he screams that every Black person should set an example, “We need lawyers, doctors, generals, senators!” Since the murder took place in the Jim Crow South in 1944, the first assumption was that the killing was at the hands of the KKK. However, one sign that something was amiss was those white hooded killers always stripped the murdered black bodies of any military insignias, which, in this case, were all still intact on Waters’ body. Systemic racism is prevalent, but the black enlisted men, who were excellent baseball players from the Negro Leagues, were sent to play ball against local semipro and industrial teams. Despite their “standing,” they are not allowed weapons, and whatever their rank, they are forced to perform menial tasks.

(L-R) Sheldon D. Brown, Branden Davon Lindsay, and Will Adams in “A Soldier’s Play” at the Ahmanson through June 25, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus

The story moves back and forth in time, and racist Waters has it out for one soldier in particular – a sweet, gentle guitar player and singer, Private C. J. Memphis, well-portrayed by Sheldon D. Brown. This gentle giant will tug at your heartstrings as he is framed for the murder by Waters, which lands him in the brig. This gentle soul is a man who is used to wide-open outdoor spaces, and his confinement has dire consequences. As was expected, the top brass wanted to bury the murder, but white Lieutenant Charles Taylor, well-played by William Connell, insists that there be an investigation and reports the incident to higher-ups. Enter Captain Richard Davenport, magnificently played by superstar Norm Lewis. His mellifluous voice and onstage presence leap the footlights, and as an audience member, you hang onto his every word. Now, Lieutenant Taylor, shocked at Davenport’s race, is faced with this brilliant MP officer, who actually outranks him and does his best to try to talk him into assigning someone else to the investigation.

Eugene Lee as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters in ‘A Soldier’s Play’ on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre through Sunday, June 25, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.

However, he is a no-nonsense officer, pulls rank on Taylor, and in short order, begins interviewing the men assigned to Waters. The actors playing the men on the baseball team are a tightly knit ensemble, each of whom delivers an outstanding performance. They are Will Adams (Corporal Bernard Cobb,) Tarik Lowe (Private First Class Melvin Peterson,) Alex Michael Givens (Corporal Ellis,) Branden Davon Lindsay (Private Louis Henson,) Howard W. Overshown (Private James Wilkie,) Malik Esoj Childs (Private Tony Smalls,) Chattan Mayes Johnson (Lieutenant Byrd,) and Matthew Goodrich (Captain Wilcox). As the investigation heats up, with unexpected twists and turns, the identity of the murderer will keep you in suspense as you navigate your way through the layered story until the ending dénouement.   

Fuller’s play is what you might call a “chestnut” as it traveled through time well intact and currently germaine. Unfortunately, the racist issues illuminated in “A Soldier’s Play” still affect the African-American community, but the closing dialogue is a message predicting a better future for black Americans. After Captain Davenport successfully concludes the murder investigation, Captain Taylor admits, “I was wrong about Negroes being in charge. I guess I’ll have to get used to it.” Putting on his sunglasses, Davenport replies, “Oh, you’ll get used to it – you can bet your sweet ass on that, captain. You will get used to it.”

‘A Soldier’s Play
Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Avenue
Los Angeles: CA 90012
Written by: Charles Fuller
Starring:  Norm Lewis
Directed by: Kenny Leon
Additional Production Team:
Costumes:  Dede Ayite
Sound:  Dan Moses Schreier
Run: 
Tuesdays  – Fridays: :  8:00 pm  
Saturdays: 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm 
Sundays:  1:00 pm  & 6:30 pm
Closing:     Sunday, June 25, 2023 
Running Time:  2 Hours – one intermission 
Tickets:  $40 – $155  
(213)972-4400 or 
centertheatregroup.org

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