Before the powerful 1984 movie A Soldier’s Story was a critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film featuring little-known newcomer Denzel Washington, it was a powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama called A Soldier’s Play, written by Charles Fuller and originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company. Although the stage presentation was impressively adapted for the screen by Fuller himself, the film version was not intended to be a substitute for the play, so any opportunity to experience this drama live should be seized. Thanks to Plowshares Theatre Company that opportunity has come to the Detroit area, as A Soldier’s Play is being performed now through Feb. 27 at the Holistic Development Center on the city’s northwest side, the temporary home for Plowshares.
The drama unfolds as a black army lawyer, Capt. Davenport (Victor Douglas), is assigned to investigate the murder of the unpopular Sgt. Waters (Anthony Lucas) on a Louisiana military base during World War II. The choice of Davenport as investigator is a shock to the unit’s white commanding officer and to the black soldiers who have never seen such a high-ranking black officer. Conventional wisdom would point to Davenport assuming either two suspicious white officers or the Ku Klux Klan as the perpetrators, but this tough, sunglassed man is not your typical lawyer, and this is not an open-and-shut case or an ordinary script.
A series of flashbacks during Davenport’s questioning of the soldiers reveal the murdered sergeant’s volatile relationship with those around him. Not only do audiences realize the obvious racism from whites toward blacks in the military during a time of segregated troops, but they are forced to confront the seldom discussed concept of prejudice within a race. The script is multilayered, with Fuller taking a basic mystery and embellishing it with complex social issues. A Soldier’s Play is more than a mystery – it’s a historical drama of the 1940s, as well as an engaging story of characters and race.
To pull off this dramatic mystery containing such sensitive issues and carrying such an impressive legacy from stage and screen, you need a top-notch ensemble. When you add to the mix the element of flashbacks (tricky to pull off in any medium, but most especially in theater), the production stakes are even higher. Obviously up to the task, Plowshares delivers with what may prove to be one of its finest productions ever.
Director Janet Cleveland brings out the best in a cast that seems ever mindful of maintaining the suspenseful mood within the context of the controlled military environment. What could have resulted in episodes of overacting, or the other extreme of contrived, stiff scenes, is instead good, believable dialogue, solidly executed.
Giving a standout performance is Anthony Lucas as the hard-nosed, disliked Sgt. Waters. Rivaling his film counterpart, Adolph Caesar, who received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, Lucas seems to have been born to play this role. As he spews out racial epithets to his black subordinates, he quickly becomes one character you love to hate. But beneath the intracultural prejudice is the knowledge that this is ultimately the result of someone beaten down by years of racism from "the man" and an example of a black man overzealous to assimilate.
Other notable performances include Michael Hays as Capt. Taylor and Victor Douglas as the controversial investigating officer. Helping to establish the tone is music from the period, and a set creation of army barracks designed by Christopher Carothers.
A Soldier’s Play begins Plowshares’ ninth season with a solid production, albeit in a temporary home. In recent previous seasons, the Museum of African American History was home to the theater company, but the search continues for permanence. For now, its home is the 550-seat sanctuary of a former church on Second Avenue and Merton in the Palmer Park area – and the next play will be held at the Anderson Center Theatre at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.
Until the cast and crew, under the guidance of artistic director Gary Anderson, find permanency they will be good soldiers and artists dedicated to local theater performing at the best possible temporary outlets. As long as they keep presenting quality productions such as their current run of A Soldier’s Play, theatergoers should definitely keep up with what they’re doing.E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org