This year’s revival of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer-winning A Soldier’s Play attracts its share of theatergoers who remember the way-back-when 1980s crystal clearly. Black women’s must-see TV that decade included sexy young Denzel Washington as a doctor on St. Elsewhere and the bae Blair Underwood as a lawyer on L.A. Law. Meanwhile, A Soldier’s Play—featuring Washington with Samuel L. Jackson—took Broadway by storm from 1981-83 (resulting in an ’84 Hollywood adaptation). Fresh off another turn as an attorney in last year’s Exonerated 5 drama When They See Us, Underwood now stars opposite David Alan Grier in Broadway’s 2020 version of A Soldier’s Play.
“They still hate you!” cries drunken Sergeant Vernon Waters on an army base in Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944, a moment before being mysteriously murdered. A Soldier’s Play shocked the Great White Way 40 years ago as a whodunnit raising issues of respectability politics, White supremacy and internalized racism. In this moment, especially on the heels of last season’s controversial Slave Play, the murder mystery comes across as a far tamer tale. But with Tina Turner’s life story Tina, The Tina Turner Musical and the Temptations musical Ain’t Too Proud playing nearby, A Soldier’s Play holds its own for theatergoers of color who prefer to see themselves onstage for those sky-high prices.
Before Blair Underwood’s Captain Richard Davenport stands center stage with his shirt off (because that happens), he arrives at the barracks to investigate Sergeant Waters’s killing. Military men both White and Black have never seen an African-American command authority with the dignity Davenport carries off, with his General MacArthur aviators and self-possessed pride. The Black soldiers he interviews about the murder salute him to death; the White captain of equal rank tries thwarting his whole investigation. Davenport’s task is to untangle all the racial biases and duplicitous doubletalk to find Waters’s killer amongst all the GIs and out-of-view Ku Klux Klansmen.
Director Kenny Leon’s shadow casts far on Broadway, through his renowned resurrection of plays like Fences and A Raisin in the Sun as well as original productions like 2018’s American Son. His casting of multiple Tony Award nominee David Alan Grier as the hardened Sergeant Waters isn’t as inspired as the late Adolph Caesar from the original play and movie. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination. But for younger audiences oblivious to the early 1980s’ previous versions, Grier makes the self-hating role his own.
Bill Cosby’s respectability politics put the first chinks in his armor before his sexual assaults became common knowledge. Imagine Cosby systematically murdering the Black folks he denigrated for their non-Anglo names and sagging jeans, and you’ll understand the mentality of A Soldier’s Play’s Sergeant Waters. When the time comes for Davenport to interrogate militant Private Melvin Peterson, the red-headed, bespectacled soldier’s resemblance to Malcolm X almost makes him too obvious as Waters’s possible murderer. Other suspects include an older career soldier who Waters once stripped of his stripes, and a young private Waters framed for murder.
Sergeant Waters’s self-loathing comes from the surrounding White supremacy inherent in a segregated Jim Crow South; his need to smother elements of his culture he’s embarrassed by is recognizable even in 2020. We’ve lived through two presidential terms of Barack Obama, yet Waters’s “they still hate you!” still resonates. As timely as ever, A Soldier’s Play holds an unflattering mirror to both sides of this divided society, showing how far we’ve come and how much further still we have yet to go.
A Solider’s Play is currently playing at New York’s Roundabout Theatre until March 15.
Miles Marshall Lewis (@MMLunlimited) has written for GQ, Teen Vogue and many other outlets. His book on Kendrick Lamar is due in 2020 from St. Martin’s Press.