A Soldier’s Play Part of Broadway @ the Ordway but Performed at The Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul

A Soldier’s Play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982 and the 2020 Broadway revival won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. It’s a celebrated drama, that explores race in the Armed Services in the early 1940’s, it’s also a whodunnit. More importantly, it’s a reminder that no matter how far we think we’ve come as a society, too much remains the same. I suspect that as powerful as this play seemed when it debuted Off-Broadway in 1981, that it’s message has only become more meaningful today. This touring productions features a strong cast that doesn’t hammer home the themes but plays realities and allows the ideas to come to light on their own. It’s the first time I’ve seen a play at the Fitzgerald Theater. At first I thought it was odd that the Ordway was presenting the play at the Fitzgerald, but having experienced A Soldier’s Play, it was an inspired move. This show would drown in the wonderfully spacious Ordway Center, it needs the more intimate space that the Fitzgerald provides.

“In 1944, on a Louisiana Army base, two shots ring out. A Black sergeant is murdered. And a series of interrogations triggers a gripping barrage of questions about sacrifice, service, and identity in America.”

From the Ordway Website

As with any whodunnit, one doesn’t want to spoil any of the mystery so the Ordway synopsis will suffice. Besides what Charles Fuller’s play is really about is race, it uses the murder mystery genre and the Army setting during World War II to explore that. The most shocking elements are not who killed Sergeant Waters, but the victims philosophy, and the realities of being black meant in that time. When we learn that the Army really doesn’t plan to do anything about the murder, as it’s a black sergeant and when we see the way the soldiers under his command just accept that this is how the world is, we are shocked. Then, we realize the similarities to what we read every week in the newspaper headlines. As a white man, I think of the reality I’ve only come to understand in the last decade, that in our world today, being pulled over for a traffic violation is a completely different situation for a black person than it is for me. I sit in the theater and am shocked at what I’m hearing, and then I’m disgusted when I realize how little we’ve changed. This is a powerful play that deserves all of it’s accolades and deserves your attention and attendance. It deals with hard things, in a matter of fact way, because that’s what they were then. We see it is as unconscionable, but the sad truth is, this is who much of our country was, and which far far far too many of our fellow citizens are still today. Fuller’s masterful blending of a really interesting mystery with social commentary is seamless. We don’t feel preached to, we feel as if the blindfold has been lifted and we can see the shocking truth, and it’s vital that we don’t turn away.

The remarkable ensemble cast of soldiers is led by Norm Lewis as Captain Davenport, a black officer who has been assigned to investigate the murder, and Eugene Lee as the murdered Sergeant Waters. Lewis is the hero and he gets to outthink his fellow white officers and beat them at their own game. He isn’t naive, but he also isn’t going to let the way the world is stand in the way of finding the truth. Lee is Shockingly good as Waters, whom we see in flashbacks, when Davenport conducts his interrogations. Whether playing a scene as the strict taskmaster or the letting his inner poisons out, Lee shows us many faces, some hard, others downright ugly. He’s not afraid to show us that hate and ugliness is color blind. While he’s playing the victim, he also plays perhaps the biggest villain of the piece. The rest of the cast is great as well, the members of Waters’ company of soldiers all have an easy give and take that really sells them as a group of soldiers who have been serving together for awhile. Of particular note is Sheldon D. Brown as Private C.J. Memphis, he gets a few moments to show off his vocal chops as well, making you almost wish it was a musical so you could hear more of his soulful voice.

The Production is directed by Kenny Leon who opens it in almost total darkness with the group of soldiers making music with their feet, hands, and voices while on the catwalk above the barracks we witness Waters’ murder. It’s a powerfully staged moment, that shocks the audience from the very start, letting us know that there are going to be some jolts along the way. The set design by Derek McLane and lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes wonderfully compliment each other. It’s deceptively simple looking but brilliantly executed, sliding panels slightly alter the scene as needed and there are some unexpected elements particularly at the end which feels like a splash of much needed cold water to sober you up as you begin to rejoice at the crime being solved.

A Soldier’s Play runs this week only closing February 12th so get your tickets fast! The Fitzgerald must seat less than a quarter of what the Ordway does so I would expect some performances may well sell out. For more information and to purchase your tickets go to https://ordway.org/events/a-soldiers-play/

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