Dallas — If the slave internalizes the sneering disrespect of the master, if he looks on the walk, the talk, the very body of his black brothers with the white master’s calculated superiority and disdain, the slave begins to loathe his own vital, fatal being as much or more than that of the other back men surrounding him. Oppression also works from the inside out.
But Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and appeared as the 1984 film A Soldier’s Story, is not set on an antebellum plantation. It begins with the death of a black sergeant, Vernon Waters (charismatic Hassan El-Amin, raging and icy by turns) in Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944. The murder is followed by a full army investigation headed by Captain Richard Davenport (a rigid, steely Christopher Dontrell Piper), a black officer and lawyer, revealing a series of ugly injustices and shocking truths as the mystery unfolds.
In the wrenching and pitch-perfect production directed by Willie Minor for African American Repertory Theater at the K.D. Studio Theatre, Fuller’s richly nuanced enlisted men provoke a visceral response to the poison of institutional racism, and how its victims live and breathe bigotry and hatred until they turn on each other in the segregated Army of World War II.
So real it hurts, the play’s subject is all too relevant in the terrible legacy of racial profiling and violence in our country. Tune in to any news channel for the latest brutal update.
Told in dramatic flashback on Josh Henley’s sharply functional set with a huge black-and-white American flag hung behind barracks bunks and government-issue trunks, you feel the power of military rituals throughout, from sharp salutes to infantry sound-off marches by the 12-man ensemble, outfitted in authentic uniforms and fatigues.
The show starts with the plot-triggering incident familiar to whodunit fans. Waters is shot by an unseen gunman, and dies in a drunken curling of his body, muttering, “They’ll still hate you.” Captain Davenport begins his investigation over the objection of the company’s white commander, Captain Charles Taylor (Christian Taylor), who fears locals will ignore a back man no matter his rank, and tells Davenport outright that, “Being in charge just doesn’t look right on Negroes.”
Piper’s determined, dignified Davenport easily stares down Taylor’s concerns, and starts interrogating white and black troops. Tenacious and logical, he doesn’t automatically assume the killer is white. In fact, as he interrogates the black troops, he sees a more complex intolerance emerge from the black barracks—and therein lays the human heartbeat of the play.
As the investigation goes forward, we meet the black men under Waters command, and Minor gives each man room to inhabit Fuller’s distinctly written characters. These men, who also happen to be a winning baseball team, are also chomping at the bit to prove themselves on the battlefield alongside white soldiers. As Davenport questions them, each man talks about his own background, as well as his experience of surviving the mercurial demands Waters exerted on them all.
All the ensemble scenes in the barracks are alive with chatting and laughter. You want this spirited, hard-working team to go all the way to the army baseball championships. Waters has tested them all. Private James Wilkie (a warped, sometimes beseeching Jordan DragonKing), Waters’ loyal right-hand man, lost his stripes in a humiliating takedown, and struggles to get back what took 10 years to earn. Private Melvin Peterson (a boot camp-fit and belligerent Lynn Andrews) has the brains and balls to challenge Waters. Private C.J. Memphis (a heartbreakingly happy Brandon Christle) is the young Mississippi guitarist and bluesman whose ease and joy in his blackness rankles Waters to the point of sadism. Lyrical in his singing, and touchingly wise in his understanding of Waters, Christle’s C.J. says, “When a man ain't sure where he belongs, he must be in a whole lot of pain.”
Piper musters the resoluteness and moral righteousness of Davenport the play needs, but he has few humanly revealing moments, partly because he also takes on narrator duties. Piper’s Davenport and Taylor’s Captain bring a welcome sense of the possibility of peaceful dialogue when the two men acknowledge each other’s common wish for justice in a late scene. Davenport has a slight smile, and Piper nods to the black officer he now views with great respect.
Hassan El-Amin, a Dallas Theater Center Brierley Resident Acting Company member who turned in a compelling performance as the crazy old wise man in AART’s production of August Wilson’s Radio Golf earlier in the season, does it again. He evokes pity and fear in his embodiment of Sergeant Waters, a man torn between his black genetic self and his struggle to make it in a white world by imitating white speak and white values.
Ramrod stiff and marching his soldiers at full tilt, El-Amin’s Walters is a model soldier in an army that keeps him on standby but doesn’t want him unless there’s a crisis. He’s literally twisted, at once writhing in a drunken meltdown of shame and guilt, and the next moment delivering a double-dose of venom. El-Amin evokes an Iago-like charm in his attraction to CJ’s music and style, smiling and recalling his love of the blues. Then he turns on the boy, accusing him of feeding white folks’ stereotypes of blacks.
Racism is so complexly woven into our world, and so damaging, it’s tempting to simply look away. But only by facing the reality of the damage it does us all can we fix what’s broken.
A Soldier’s Play has a long shelf life and seeing the show pulls you into the reality of the present as well as the past. This show will stay with you long after you leave the theater. For sure, you don’t want to miss this show’s marvelously in-your-face military curtain call.