Loosely inspired by Herman Melville’s novella, “Billy Budd,” A SOLDIER’S PLAY was initially performed off-Broadway in 1981, with a cast including Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. In 1982, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama – along with the Outer Drama Critics Circle Award, the New York Drama Critics Award, and the Obie Award for its ensemble cast. Penned by Charles Fuller, A SOLDIER’S PLAY was adapted into a feature film called “A Soldier’s Story” in 1984 and became a surprise hit for director Norman Jewison and many of the cast reprising their stage roles. A revival in 2006 was well received – but it was not until 2020, when the Roundabout Theatre Company again revived the powerful drama on Broadway, that the show rocketed back into the spotlight, winning the 2020 Tony Award for Best Revival. After only 55 performances, however, COVID-19 struck; and all U.S. theaters were forced to shut their doors. When theater performances again began post-pandemic, the Roundabout Theatre Company arranged a national tour for the 2022-2023 season rather than a return to Broadway. The Ahmanson Theatre is proud to present A SOLDIER’S PLAY in 2023.
The time is 1944 during WW II, and the place is Fort Neal, Louisiana, deep in the segregated South. Fort Neal is a military base where most of the soldiers are Black – except, of course, for the command-level officers. But that is soon to change. The base is currently in chaos following the murder of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee), a Black platoon leader who was reportedly well liked by his men. Waters was also the manager of the Black baseball team which was assembled at this base from players previously in the Negro Baseball League. As might be expected, the first and foremost suspect in the crime was the Ku Klux Klan. That is, until the arrival of Captain Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis), a Black attorney assigned to the Military Police and sent to investigate the killing. His reluctant counterpart at Fort Neal, Captain Charles Taylor (William Connell), has serious misgivings about the skills of a Black officer and is clear in the opinions he expresses to his white fellow officers – and Davenport. While the Black soldiers on the base are pleased to see a Black man who is also an officer, they are at best guarded when questioned by an officer. As Davenport digs into the circumstances of the crime, unexpected information begins to emerge – information which throws earlier ideas about the crime into serious doubt.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY is a suspense-filled tale about racism – but also about loyalty, compassion, camaraderie, and the very real prejudices and barriers which routinely reared their heads barely 70 years ago. It is also a story of distorted but deeply-held beliefs and the unchecked aggression that they might trigger. But has the tense environment and potential violence of the 1940s ended? To quote 70-year-old actor Eugene Lee, “(The play’s) truths are still true…not much has changed.” Skillfully directed by Kenny Leon, the ensemble cast does a superb job of building the tension, event by event. The artful use of flashbacks keeps the action in the forefront, as does some very clever use of music and dance which both emphasizes the lock-step military mind and the Black cultural values; marches can easily morph into jive and jazz. Special congratulations to Norm Lewis, who has the voice to echo and cajole, and Eugene Lee, the man you may love to hate. And let’s not forget the Roundabout Theatre Company, who brought this powerful, moving, and thought-provoking play back for current audiences to enjoy.
Kudos are also in order for the production team, including Derek McLane’s nearly perfect set design, Dede Ayite’s timely costumes, Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting, and Don Moses Schreier’s sound. Building that towering stage must have presented some interesting problems. A SOLDIER’S PLAY is recommended for history and mystery buffs, those involved in the military, people concerned about racial issues – and just about everyone else. This is a story about people – flawed, perhaps – but still very human. As such, it will attract and engross audiences.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY runs through June 25, 2023, with performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. The Ahmanson Theatre is located in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Tickets range from $40 to $155. For information and reservations, call 213-972-4440 or go online.
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