In the riveting, too-short Chicago run of the forty-two-year-old Pulitzer-winning “A Soldier’s Play,” the young Black infantrymen play on the best baseball team in the U.S. Army. It’s 1944 in Klan-infested Louisiana, and besides baseball, the men are assigned mostly to menial clean-up duties serving a segregated Army while they await and hope for deployment to fight. They played in the Negro leagues (there was more than one league) before their service and were kept together in the Army so they could excel against other teams, all of which were white. The Army had a season of sorts. The officers who are the soldiers’ camp superiors know their team is all-but-impossible to beat, and that if the soldiers go undefeated they will play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt gave professional baseball a famous “green light” to continue. Although hundreds of players, including several Yankee stars, went to war, baseball’s popularity grew. Fans saw attending the games as a patriotic act. The action in “A Soldier’s Play” takes place a year before Jackie Robinson made history by being the first African American signed by a Major League team. So the prospect of a superb all-Black Army team defeating the mighty, albeit war-depleted, Yankees is a tantalizing one.
That prospect is held out early in the play. For the white officers, the victory would hail them as capable leaders of a group—i.e. Black soldiers—largely regarded in the Army as unworthy of even infantry duty. Promotions might follow for the white men in charge. We only learn later what that victory might have meant to the lifelong project of the soldiers’ toxic, probably pathologically hate-filled Black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters.
Waters is an older Army man who served in World War I when Black soldiers played an instrumental part in the U.S. effort, but were the object of merciless degrading by white soldiers. Waters has high aspirations for integrating Black people into the social and economic world of whites, but also thinks necessary a version of eugenics-based culling of a class of Southern, rural Blacks that he regards as impediments to his grander vision. Waters’ treatment of his men as baseball players and soldiers is driven by his diseased thinking. Some of the men see Waters’ thinking as the result of his own suffering in a racist system; others just see him as another brand of racist perpetuating their subjugation. We see all this unfold as the action in the play moves backward in the manner of police procedural. Waters is gunned down outside of camp in the first moments of the play.
Running the investigation into Waters’ death is one of the Army’s few Black commissioned officers, Captain Richard Davenport, played imposingly by Norm Lewis. Lewis conveys the fierce strength and commanding presence that Davenport needs to leverage his unique position as a Black officer and to overcome the aggressive condescension of the white army men—of all ranks—with his intellectual and moral strength. When Davenport shows up to camp, the white Captain Taylor in charge is nonplussed. Taylor is played sensitively by William Connell, who may be the character in the play who undergoes the biggest, most positive shift in consciousness. He goes from skeptic toward Davenport—on account of race—to ally. The white captain has the deepest doubts Davenport can find Waters’ killers, who are assumed at first to be Klansmen and out-of-reach of a Black investigator. Davenport’s investigation ultimately hones in on the bitter division among the Black men.
When “A Soldier’s Play” was first staged in the 1980s, playwright Charles Fuller took heat for highlighting how racism-at-large infected relations among his Black characters. Some critics charged that the play perpetuated stereotypes that needed burying. Fuller argued that all communities suffer from a wide range of emotions and behaviors and that his characters also lived in a context where the dynamics of hate, self-hatred and resistance demanded exploration. Four decades later, with the help of a strong production and fantastic cast, Fuller (who died last year) seems on firmer ground than ever. This is a story about Black soldiers in a certain time and place, but the issues for Blacks and whites still manifest. The ousting of two African American legislators from the Tennessee Statehouse was unfolding the night I saw this show. Black people certainly are not the only ones who must mediate complicated power relations that can work against what others might see as common cause. Kindred stories can be told of prisoners, refugees, concentration camp populations and many others. Indeed, “A Soldier’s Play,” is adapted, in part, from Herman Melville’s unfinished classic “Billy Budd,” set in the class-riven British Navy of the eighteenth century. “A Soldier’s Play” has a depth all its own, however.
The play’s journey to Broadway, and to a touring Broadway production, took forty years. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre committed to stage the play before its 1981 Off-Broadway debut and in 1983 offered a much-acclaimed production. The play hit Broadway for the first time in 2020, but was shut prematurely due to COVID-19. It is hard to imagine the New York production was better than the tour. The ensemble of soldiers is universally strong and keep the intensity of drama high. They also sing and move to spirituals and Delta blues, all beautifully. We also get to hear the breathtakingly beautiful singing voice of Norm Lewis. Amid it all, however, is the heart-stopping performance of Eugene Lee as the monster Waters. The actor was in the original cast of “A Soldier’s Play” with the Negro Ensemble Company. At NEC he was mentored by one of the company’s renowned founders, Adolph Caesar, for whom Sergeant Waters was a signature role. (Caesar, who died in 1986, starred in the 1984 film adaptation, “A Soldier’s Story.”) The stage is electric every moment Lee is present.
Though you may have guessed that the team never plays the Yankees, the reasons turn out to be surprising and poignant.
Take a quick run to catch this short run. This is a wonderful, provocative show.
“A Soldier’s Play,” Broadway in Chicago at CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe, broadwayinchicago. Through April 16.