A Soldier’s Play
Black history buffs will thrill to Roxbury Repertory Theater’s edge-of-the-seat dramatization of Charles Fuller’s "A Soldier’s Play."
Like a time machine, the perfectly calibrated production shoots you back to 1944 at the U.S. Army’s Fort Neal situated outside a small Louisiana town in the Jim Crow South.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that launched the careers of a number of black actors, when it premiered at the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981, continues at Roxbury Community College through this weekend only. The good news, however, is that the prestigious WHAT (Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater) is proposing to book the show for a longer run on its stage on Cape Cod.
World War II is raging, but while the black soldiers are in training (as a racially segregated unit), the decision has yet to be made in Washington whether because they are Negro they’re fit to be sent into battle.
Each of the men in this black company has his reasons for being willing, even eager, to fight and die for a country that fails to give them equity as citizens or to acknowledge them as fellow human beings. Some of these beliefs clash.
All of this - the Klan infested countryside, the segregated fort, the tensions of these men amongst themselves - is the encroaching environment for what transpires
The black company’s despised over-bearing sergeant is murdered on a path from town leading to the fort. His last words, "they still hate you!"
Washington sends in the self possessed Captain Richard Davenport (Daver Morrison) to investigate. He is that rarity of those times, a black Army officer. He is also a man with his own mind who when it comes to fingering the murderer will not be swayed by the preconceptions of others. His sleuthing unmasks the human dynamics of the case.
Director Marshall Hughes has upped the temperature on the pressure cooker situation for the audience by seating them in close proximity to the action. This staging works to the desired effect of involving you minute by minute in the lives of these soldiers. In daring such intimacy, Hughes has correctly relied on the riveting performances from the entire racially mixed cast not one of whom offers a stereotypical interpretation.
Daver Morrison, a graduate of Boston Latin Academy who has gone on to act in numerous TV dramas and soap operas and appeared in regional theaters such as the Guthrie and the Colorado Shakespeare Shakespeare Festival and North Shore Music Theater, plays the Mr. Tibbs-like Davenport with aplomb.
Self-hate turned outward toward the men under him radiates from the physically imposing Damon Singletary’s Sergeant Vernon C. Waters whose twisted idea of racial progress prompts him to cruel excess. Adolph Caesar, who later portrayed Mister’s father in the movie "The Color Purple," originated the role.
Popular Boston-based actor David J. Curtis plays the sweet-tempered, blues guitar strumming Private C. J. Memphis with a warmth and humor that endears him to the audience as it does to his bunkmates. He’s a man comfortable in his own skin which is precisely why Sergeant Waters hates him so.
A very young Geraldo Portillo (senior theater major at Boston Arts Academy) plays the man ahead of his time politically, intellectual Private First Class Melvin Peterson with dash and bravado. This was the role that following the TV ’St Elsewhere" gave Denzel Washington a status of the actor with presence what-ever the medium.
The role originated by Samuel L .Jackson, Private Louis Henson, is here taken by a woman Emerald Johnson, cast in this gender blind way by Hughes as an implied reference to the difficulties faced by women and by gays too in today’s military.
Outstanding too is Cliff Blake as the mild-mannered, white Captain Taylor put in charge over Waters of the black company and more sympathetic to their plight than the extremely ambitious Waters.
The exquisite reading of "A Soldier’s Play" by Marshall Hughes and his fine company of actors reveals that Charles Fuller’s drama not only stands the test of time but also can be heard as an even richer, more profound delving into the morass of racism in America than was first credited.
Roxbury Repertory Theater’s "A Soldier’s Play" by Charles Fuller continues for six more performances, including four matinees through Sat. Nov. 2 at Roxbury Community College, 1234 Columbus Ave across the street from the Roxbury Crossing MBTA stop on the Orange Line. Tickets are reasonably priced at $10 and $5 for students and seniors. For more info please go on-line to Roxbury Repertory Theater or email firstname.lastname@example.org.