Review of A Soldier's Play, starring David Alan Grier & Blair Underwood, on Broadway

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    Date:
    January 22, 2020
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    It’s real -- and it’s spectacular. Blair Underwood’s bare chest, that is, based on theatergoers’ reactions. And while a flash of the "L.A. Law" alum’s physique has been earning cheers at A Soldier’s Play, the taut and fine-tuned new production of this 1981 drama deserves a hearty salute too. 

    At the American Airlines Theatre, the Roundabout Theatre Company revival (also starring David Alan Grier) marks the Broadway debut of Charles Fuller’s racially explosive drama. The play, which showcased the talents of Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson early on, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and spawned a movie version two years later. It tells an enduring and urgent story and has a surprise or two up its uniformed sleeve.

    A whodunit and, moreover, whydunit, the plot is based on Fuller’s experience in the Army. The murder of Vernon C. Waters (Grier), a black sergeant at Fort Neal, a segregated Army base in Louisiana during World War II, sets things in motion. The unit is made up of former Negro League baseball players whose winning streak makes the base look good. Off the field, the men get the lowliest tasks. “Anything you don’t want to do,” one says, “the colored troops will do for you!”

    The burning question: Who pumped two bullets into Waters? Ku Klux Klansmen? Bigoted white officers? Someone in Waters’ unit?

    Captain Richard Davenport (Underwood), a black officer, is ordered to find out. From the get-go he meets resistance from Captain Charles Taylor (Jerry O’Connell), who tells the investigator, “I never saw a Negro until I was 12 or 13,” he says. Undeterred, Davenport perseveres. He doesn’t even take off his sunglasses when he addresses Taylor. That’s what you call throwing shade -- a savvy detail in Fuller’s nearly 40-year-old script.

    As Davenport interviews suspects and witnesses, the testimony, told as flashbacks, reveals Waters and why he was killed in vivid, chilling detail. Some moments do turn a bit slack and the play doesn’t actually drop clues or unfold like a puzzle that you can solve. Still, it reverberates with a timeless message about bigotry -- between races as well as within them.

    Director Kenny Leon, a Tony Award winner for A Raisin in the Sun, guides a terrific cast. Nnamdi Asomugha and J. Alphonse Nicholson are particularly strong as, respectively, the proud Private Peterson and genial, guitar-plucking Private Memphis. O’Connell, meanwhile, could ease up on his halting line readings. Grier, who appeared in the Off-Broadway Negro Ensemble Company production and the movie before landing in "In Living Color," thoroughly convinces as one very cruel piece of work. Underwood’s cool, understated approach works like a charm.

    The stark staging features a barracks of wooden slats and rolling set pieces, beams of light, projections of cloudy skies, and crisp military garb. Leon invigorates moments with singing and tightly choreographed movement, a device that vaguely recalls the recent run of Choir Boy. The script calls for “Don’t Sit Under the Apple” to be heard during the play, but Leon goes in different directions. His final choices -- a blend of rap and stars and stripes -- sends audiences out to the street on just the right note.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Whether A Soldier’s Play is a great stage drama regardless of its flaws is something its bumpy but worthy Broadway debut, directed by Kenny Leon for the Roundabout Theater Company, cannot answer. Despite some powerful acting, it is too distracted to make the case."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "A Soldier’s Play probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1981 drama begins with a shooting and follows what looks like a conventional murder-mystery track... As directed by Kenny Leon in its first Broadway production, however, the play is sturdy instead of creaky: Like the bare wood of Derek McLane’s set, it gets the job done, and it provides a platform for powerful moments and performances."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "Kenny Leon deserves much credit enhancing the play’s message through directorial flourishes. He adds historical allusions to the African American experience throughout, beginning with a stirring call-and-response from the soldiers in a darkened barracks suggesting the early roots of African music. And later we see the troops marching in a thrilling sequence, combining military cadence with stylized movements. It all comes together quite powerfully, evoking the emotional wounds borne by a lifetime of soul-crushing hate. After some 40 years, A Soldier’s Play still hits home, summoning a world at war with itself."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "For the most part, Fuller’s play holds up as a taut, well-written mystery that intercuts between Capt. Davenport’s investigation and flashbacks to Waters’ haranguing of his charges, many of them recently arrived from the Negro Baseball League. But there’s a certain stiltedness to the genre, and some of the novelty of procedurals has worn thin since the onslaught of “Law & Order” and other shows of its ilk."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "The belated arrival on Broadway of Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner, A Soldier's Play, risks looking like a throwback to more old-fashioned, conventional drama. Yet in the hands of director Kenny Leon and a terrific ensemble, this period piece about corrosive self-loathing bred out of institutionalized racism remains powerful theater."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter