A Soldier’s Play
CHARLES H. FULLER 1981
A Soldier’s Play opened November 20, 1981, at the Negro Ensemble Company for the first of 468 performances. Fuller has stated that his play is modeled after Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, which explores a confrontation between evil and innocence that results in tragedy. While it is about the investigation of a murder, A Soldier’s Play is not a murder mystery in the strictest sense. The investigation does not consist of policemen unraveling clues or of the simple analysis of physical evidence. Instead, the investigation by a black officer is primarily an exploration into who the slain Waters really was and how racism influences men’s behaviors and ideals. The investigator, Captain Davenport, tries to solve this mystery by interviewing the men who served under Waters.
These interviews provide pieces of a puzzle, that when assembled, create a picture of a complex man who often bullied his men but who saw the war as an opportunity for blacks to escape the constraints of segregation. The portrait of Waters reveals a man who has found the only power white men will give to a black man—as a non-commissioned officer in the army during World War II. Critics were enthusiastic about Fuller’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Award in 1982, but A Soldier’s Play also provoked controversy. Where some critics argued that Fuller was forcing audience members to confront their own prejudge, a leading black dramatist, Amiri Baraka, accused Page 162 | Top of ArticleFuller of working against his own race and of fulfilling the dreams of white power. Fuller’s play was never produced on Broadway; rumor has it that Fuller refused to remove the last line of the play, “you’ll get used to it [Negroes being in charge].”
Charles H. Fuller was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1939. His father was a printer, and it was while proofreading his father’s work that Fuller became interested in literature. While in high school, Fuller and a friend vowed to read every book in the library, but when he realized that there were no books by African Americans, Fuller pledged to fill the shelves. After attending Yiddish theatre, Fuller became focused on drama. Fuller joined the army in 1959 after two years at Villanova University. While in the Army, he served as a petroleum laboratory technician in Korea and Japan. After his time in the army, Fuller attended LaSalle College from 1965 to 1968 and continued to write. Fuller ignores these early efforts, although critics praised his The Village: A Party (1968) as showing promise. Fuller’s first professionally produced play, The Brownsville Raid (1976), drew critical attention. This was followed by Zooman and the Sign (1980), which won two Obie Awards. Fuller’s next play, A Soldier’s Play (1981), earned him a Pulitzer Prize for drama, making Fuller only the second black playwright to win this honor. A Soldier’s Play also garnered the New York Drama Critics Award for best American play and the Outer Circle critics award for best Off-Broadway play in 1982. Fuller’s film adaptation of this play earned him an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay adaptation in 1984. Fuller went on to begin work on a collection of plays that dramatizes the black experience during the Civil War. The first of the series of five to six plays was completed in 1988, with the production of We for the Negro Ensemble Company. Fuller is also co-founder and co-director of the Afro-American Arts Theatre in Philadelphia (1967-71). In addition, he has been a writer and director of “The Black Experience” for WIP-Radio in Philadelphia (1970-71). Fuller has also contributed short stories to anthologies and periodicals and is currently at work on another play.
The play opens with the murder of Sergeant Waters. The audience sees Waters on stage; he is drunk. Immediately there are two shots, but the audience never sees who fires the weapon. In the next scene, five black soldiers are being searched for weapons and they are confined to their barracks, presumably until the risk of a revenge killing ends. Captain Davenport appears on stage and addresses the audience in a monologue that explains why a black lawyer has been sent to a southern army base to investigate a murder. There is immediate conflict when the company captain, Taylor, learns that Davenport is black. Taylor warns Davenport that he will get no cooperation and that no one in authority will allow a black officer to arrest a white man, if the murderer turns out to be white. Taylor also tells Davenport that white officers at the post will not accept a black man of equal rank, and that in his experience, blacks are subordinates without education. Davenport insists on performing his assignment and sets up to interview the men in Waters’s company.
The first man interviewed is Wilkie, who tells Davenport that Waters put him in jail and reduced his rank after Wilkie was caught drunk on duty. Wilkie also tells Davenport about the black baseball team and how the black soldiers beat the white soldiers at baseball. From Wilkie, the audience learns that Waters, who thought southern blacks lazy and shiftless, was especially kind to C.J. C.J. was not only good with a baseball bat, but he sang and played the guitar. But the reality is that Waters only pretended to like C.J. In truth, Waters had no use for games or for southern blacks, whom he thought were playing into white stereotypes of black men. Wilkie tries to humanize Waters when he relates the sergeant’s hopes for his two children.
The next soldier to be interviewed is Peterson, who tells Davenport that he and Waters came to blows and that Waters beat him after Peterson challenged Waters’s authority. In the midst of talking with Peterson, Taylor sends for Davenport. When Davenport reports to Taylor’s office, he is told that Taylor has filed papers to stop the investigation. Taylor also reveals that the night Waters was murdered, he has a confrontation with two white officers. One of the officers beat Waters severely before being pulled off by the second man. When Davenport accuses Taylor of covering up a black Page 163 | Top of Articleman’s murder by white officers, Taylor replies that both men had faultless alibis. The act ends with Davenport pledging to prove the white officers guilty.
Act II opens with another monologue by Captain Davenport, who tells the audience that he has gone to Colonel Nivens and received permission to question the two white officers involved. When he finishes this speech, Davenport begins questioning the next man, Henson. Henson relates how C.J. was framed by someone who placed a gun under his bed. When Waters told C.J. that he was under arrest, the young soldier attacked Waters, who then arrested C.J. and charged him with attacking a superior officer during time of war. The men discuss the arrest and decide to go to the captain and tell him that they saw someone sneak into the barracks and plant a gun under C.J.’s bed. When Davenport interviews Cobb, he is told that Cobb visited C.J. in jail and that the young man was severely depressed by the confinement. The day after the visit, C.J. commited suicide. The next interview is with Byrd and Wilcox. Taylor is also present. The atmosphere is filled with tension, but eventually Davenport learns that both Wilcox and Bryd have been cleared when their weapons passed ballistics tests.
At this point, Davenport goes back to interview Wilkie a second time and learns that it was Wilkie who planted the evidence that resulted in C.J.’s arrest. Wilkie also reveals that Waters hated southern blacks and thought they made all blacks look foolish. At that moment, Ellis enters to announce that the company has orders and will be leaving for Europe within 48 hours. Davenport arrests Wilkie and in the next moment learns that Smalls is in the stockade accused of going AWOL. When Davenport confronts Smalls, he confesses that he watched Peterson murder Waters. In a short monologue that follows this revelation, Davenport tells the audience that Peterson was arrested a week later. He also provides a brief follow-up to the men’s lives and the audience learns that the entire company was killed during a German advance.
Byrd is a white, by-the-book military officer. He has a history of confrontation and conflict with black soldiers. The night he is murdered, Byrd beats
Waters savagely after he comes upon the sergeant drunk and sick. When questioned by Davenport, Byrd is almost insolent and has to be threaten by Taylor before he will answer.
Corporal Bernard Cobb
Cobb is in his mid to late twenties. He appears to be focused on women—on the women he wants, the ones he has had, the diseases they may have given him. He is closest to C.J. and is almost unmoved by Waters’s death.
Captain Richard Davenport
Davenport is an military lawyer, assigned to investigate the murder of Waters. Because he is black, the army really cannot find a place for Davenport and so has assigned him to police black soldiers. He delivers a lengthy monologue when he enters the stage for the first time. This speech tells the audience the background of the story currently being acted on stage. Other officers, most of whom are white, do not know what to make of a black officer, and he is an object of intense curiosity. Davenport is not intimidated by the reception he gets from the white officers. His investigation is thorough, and he quickly is able to delve into the events leading up to Waters’s murder.
Ellis is a by-the-book soldier. He is assigned to be Davenport’s assistant and his job is to deliver the men to Davenport for questioning.
Private Louis Henson
Henson is in his late twenties. He is nervous and convinced that the Ku Klux Klan is to blame for Waters’s murder. Henson is used to being subordinate. He sits back and observes actions but is reluctant to speak up. When questioned by Davenport, Henson has to be ordered to tell his story.
Private C. J. Memphis
Memphis, a young black soldier, was a special favorite of Waters. He entertained with his singing and guitar playing, and he played baseball with the troops as well. Waters likes C.J. initially, but he also sees him as representing everything that blacks need to put behind them—the singing, clowning, and dancing around. C.J. is jailed after he strikes Waters, but Waters had provoked the young soldier and his arrest demoralizes the young man, who had felt that Waters liked him. C.J.’s death, two months before Waters’s, sets in motion the events that follow.
Private First Class Melvin Peterson
Peterson is in his late twenties. He is the neatest of the black troops, shoes polished, his stripe clearly visible, his uniform neatly pressed. Peterson had a history of conflict with Waters, having previously come to blows in a fight with Waters. The area of conflict centered on Peterson’s perception that Waters failed to support the men, allowing white soldiers to use the blacks as common laborers and not soldiers. Later when Waters arrests C.J., it is Peterson who insists that the men need to report the truth to the captain. Peterson is aggressive and not intimidated by Waters.
Private Tony Smalls
Smalls is a small man in his late thirties. He is a career soldier and appears genuinely concerned about Waters’s murder. Smalls is arrested for going AWOL, and when questioned, he confesses to what he saw the night Waters was murdered.
Captain Charles Taylor
Tayor is a white, West Point educated, officer in his mid to late thirties. When he first meets Davenport, Taylor confesses that he is not comfortable with a black officer. His only experience with blacks is as workmen or subordinates, and he indicates he cannot and does not support Davenport’s investigation. He is clearly displeased that Davenport is not subservient or willing to be ordered about by a man of equal rank, who is clearly, in Taylor’s mind at least, superior to any blacks. Taylor reluctantly becomes Davenport’s ally in the investigation. Taylor, while not believing in equality, also recognizes that blacks deserve to be given justice.
Tech Sergeant Vernon C. Waters
Waters’s murder opens the play. Thereafter, his presence on stage is as a voice from the past. He stands slightly off-stage in a pale light and recounts experiences with different individuals. Waters was all military correctness, wanting what was best for his men, but at the same time, hard on them when they disappointed him. Waters had a son for whom he wanted a better future than the one the army offered. He planned to send both his son and daughter to a white man’s college so that they would be Page 165 | Top of Articleable to compete with whites and not be left behind. Waters was a complex man who could both praise and attack his men. His goal was to rid the army of southern blacks, who he felt held the entire black community back. But when C.J. commits suicide, Waters is stunned and realizes that he is to blame.
Wilcox is a medical officer who is accused of participating in a beating of Waters on the night he was murdered. Wilcox is the one officer who treats Davenport with respect and who appears to have no bias against blacks.
Private James Wilkie
Wilkie is a career soldier in his early forties. He has recently lost three stripes. He was closest in age to Waters, and in spite of losing rank, pay, and going to jail for ten days, Wilkie claims to have had no hard grudge against Waters. Wilkie was Waters’s servant. He ran his errands, managed the ball team, and cleaned his quarters; but when Wilkie got caught drinking, Waters took all his stripes, which had taken him ten years to earn. Then as a bribe to force Wilkie to plant evidence, Waters promises to return his stripes.
The alienation that black soldiers feel is best demonstrated by the baseball games that are played between white and blacks. The black soldiers view the baseball games as one area where they can prove superiority over white soldiers. The blacks are treated as subservient and subordinate underlings. They are not given the opportunity to be real soldiers; instead they function as little more than servants, handymen, garbage collectors, and gardeners. When these same black soldiers meet white soldiers on the baseball field, the game makes them equal, and when the black team wins, they are superior. Black soldiers emerge from the games knowing that they will be alienated and punished for winning, but their victory makes the alienation more tolerable.
Anger & Hatred
Although he disguises it, Waters really hates what he is—a black man, a black soldier in the army. He is so consumed with self-hatred that he turns it upon the men in his company. Waters is
given power over other men; it is a power given by whites and largely controlled by whites, but Waters thinks that if he can do the job well, that he can change the white perception of the black man. So he is harder on his men and crueler than a white officer would be, and he tries to eliminate those blacks that he thinks would be unable to compete in a white man’s world. Waters sees black survival in becoming white. He hates his own black race and his history, and he turns that hatred upon his men, ultimately being responsible for the death of one of them.
Waters betrays his men, especially C.J., when he plants evidence that implicates the young man in Page 166 | Top of Articlea crime. The sole purpose in framing C.J. is to remove him from the company. But Waters has befriended C.J., praising his singing and playing. The reality is that Waters hates all southern blacks, whom he considers fools who are perpetuating an image of black foolishness with their singing, dancing, and clowning around. C.J. is guilty of all these actions, and in his innocence, he never suspects Waters of betrayal.
Captain Davenport faces prejudice when he arrives at a southern military post to conduct his investigation into Waters’s death. When Captain Taylor meets Davenport, the latter is told that the white community will not tolerate a black man investigating whites. But that is not the only reason for Taylor’s concern. Taylor admits that in a conversation with other white officers, most admitted they did not want to serve with black officers and could not accept blacks as equals. Indeed, when Davenport finally interviews two white officers, Byrd and Wilcox, Byrd makes clear his distaste for the black captain. Byrd also admits that he beat Waters because the sergeant did not treat him with the respect he deserved as an officer and as a white man.
Racism is the source for the violence that occurs at this army post. Although there are many black soldiers, they are not welcome in the predominately white community that surrounds the post. When Waters’s murder is discovered, initial suspicion falls on the local Ku Klux Klan, who have been responsible for attacks on black soldiers in the past. There is a clear division on the post as well, with the white officers and soldiers aligned against the blacks. The black soldiers feel that if they can only get overseas and into the war, they can prove that they are as good at killing Hitler’s men as are the white soldiers. And finally, there is racism within the black community, also. Waters is guilty of racism when he turns on C.J., whose only crime is that he is from the south and represents the type of black man who Waters thinks is holding back other blacks.
Violence was too often the result of confrontations between whites and blacks. When Waters is murdered, suspicion first falls on white men, notable the Ku Klux Klan. But violence is also Waters primary way of dealing with difference. Waters identifies rural southern blacks as a hindrance to black advancement. He thinks that their singing and dancing recalls a period of ignorance and subservience that prevents blacks from achieving equality with whites. Rather than look for a way to overcome this problem, Waters seeks a solution in violence. Rather than educate these blacks, Waters has them jailed and placed in a prison population where violence becomes a means of survival; C.J.’s imprisonment leads to his death.
A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Davenport is a black attorney, who divulges much about himself in the monologues that he uses to update the audience on the action that occurs between scenes. His character is revealed in other ways also, most notably in his confrontations with Taylor.
A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.
Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or Page 167 | Top of Articlepastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. A Soldier’s Play is a mystery.
A monologue is a speech given by a character and principally addressed to the audience. In a monologue, the character speaking is alone on stage, or thinks he is alone, and thus he speaks the truth. This device is a way for an author to relate to the audience that the speaker really thinks, rather than what he may be telling other characters. A monologue can also be used like a Greek Chorus—to give information about details that occur off stage or between acts or to comments upon action that has occurred. In A Soldier’s Play, Davenport uses a monologue to tell the audience that has occurred behind the scenes and what he is thinking.
This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of A Soldier’s Play is the investigation into who killed Sergeant Waters. But the themes are racism and prejudice.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for A Soldier’s Play is an army post in the south. The cultural setting is racism and segregation and the division that occurred within the still segregated military.
In 1981, when Charles Fuller wrote A Soldier’s Play, the United States military was fully integrated. In fact, the military services have been the largest equal opportunity employer of blacks for many years. But it was not always this way. Historically, blacks have been recruited into the military during wars but unceremoniously returned to civilian life once the war ended. World War II began in much the same way. For many blacks, there was no reason to want to involve themselves in this war. The experience in World War I had taught that once their services were no longer needed that blacks found they had gained nothing by their sacrifice. The freedoms they fought for were not theirs, and the country they defended rejected them. Consequently, many blacks saw World War II as a white man’s war, but some, like Sergeant Waters, saw the war as an opportunity to prove that blacks were as brave, as strong, and as accountable as any white soldiers. They reasoned that blacks could shoot a weapon, fly a plane, and kill a German as well as any white man, and they wanted a chance to prove it. They also saw the war as a means to wedge a crack into the segregation that still defined American life. If the military could be integrated, then maybe other areas of American life could be opened up, as well.
During both World War I and II, the army was completely segregated. Blacks were largely restricted to non-combat units, where they were responsible for basic duties that were mostly limited to labor and not combat. In other words, blacks were largely domestics, gardeners, mechanics, and handymen. Only a few blacks were permitted to join artillery units, and these units were also segregated so that blacks fought alongside blacks, and whites fought alongside whites. With the beginning of World War II, black community leaders pressured President Roosevelt to open up aviation schools to blacks. He responded by authorizing an aviation school for blacks, but it took a lawsuit against the War Department before blacks became members of the Army Air Corps. The black unit that was formed became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Initially no one wanted these black airmen, but eventually they found combat in North Africa and Italy where they distinguished themselves.
Toward the end of the war, black infantry units were sent to Germany, where they participated in the liberation of the concentration camps. It is difficult to imagine what they felt as these victims of American racism liberated the victims of Nazi racism in Europe. But when blacks returned to the United States after the war, they began to demand
greater equality, especially in the military. This demand finally forced President Truman to sign an order that eventually led to the integration of the military, and for the first time ever, blacks would not be cashiered out of the military at war’s end. Instead, after the Korean War and Vietnam, blacks became a part of a peace-time military. Prior to World War II, integration had to be forced upon white America. In 1941, President Roosevelt had to order employers and unions to cease all discrimination again blacks. In particular, he emphasized that those companies that were awarded defense contracts must not discriminate. Race riots in 1943 among defense workers signaled that integration would not come easily. It did not come easily in the military either. Although World War II made it easier for blacks to integrate the military, much of that integration led to a greater proportion of black Page 169 | Top of Articlecasualties during war. It would take many more years before blacks truly began to achieve a more equitable share of the military effort.
In general, A Soldier’s Play received very favorable reviews when it debuted Off-Broadway in November 1981. Critics were enthusiastic and audiences receptive to Fuller’s mystery. For example, Frank Rich’s review in The New York Times, calls Fuller’s play a major breakthrough and “in every way, a mature and accomplished work.” A Soldier’s Play is also “a relentless investigation into the complex, sometimes cryptic pathology of hate.” What Rich calls a “skillful portraiture of a dozen characters” creates “a remarkable breadth of social and historical vision.” Rich is also enthusiastic about the cast, especially Charles Brown as Davenport, Denzel Washington as Peterson, and Peter Friedman as Taylor, but Rich’s greatest praise is for Adolphe Caesar’s performance of Waters, a role that is “hateful... one moment and a sympathetic, pitiful wreck the next.” Referring to Douglas Turner Ward’s direction as “superlative,” Rich notes that Fuller’s play “tirelessly insists on embracing volatile contradictions because that is the way to arrive at the shattering truth.” John Beaumont’s review for The Christian Science Monitor is another emphatic endorsement of Fuller’s play. Beaumont calls attention to Fuller’s “carefully written, tautly dramatic scenes [which] are filled with racial-psychological insights.” But this reviewer also observes Fuller’s use of comedic and raunchy material that sounds like the authentic voice of barracks talk. Beaumont also credits an excellent cast and the “admirable staging by Ward for the play’s success.
Another endorsement comes from Edwin Wilson at the The Wall Street Journal. Wilson’s review calls A Soldier’s Play “a skillfully wrought, thoroughly suspenseful detective story.” But Wilson points out that Fuller goes beyond a mystery to create, “one of the most even-handed, penetrating studies of relations among blacks-as well as their relations with whites-that we have yet seen.” As is the case with other reviewers, Beaumont also singles out the cast and director as deserving special commendation, and Fuller’s “complex web of conflicting attitudes and emotions” as strong elements of the play. Additional ratification for Fuller’s play is supplied by Douglas Watt of the Daily News. Calling A Soldier’s Play “an absorbing, interestingly-layered drama” that could use a bit of tightening, Watt states that an evening at this play is “one of the more satisfying ones in town.” While Watt praises Brown and Friedman’s performances, he has special kudos for Washington, Caesar, and the other actors who portray the enlisted men; these men, he says, “make up the heart of the play.” Watt points to this play as Fuller’s “best achievement to date.” These words are echoed by Clive Barnes of the New York Post, who writes that “Fuller is revealing himself as a playwright of great sensibility... [who] must be watched and, even more, cherished.” After having complimented Ward’s direction and the exceptional work of Caesar and Friedman, Barnes says of Brown, that “he is developing into a consummate actor” whose performance is the best of a fine cast.
Additional praise for Fuller is also provided by Jack Kroll of Newsweek. Kroll declares that this latest Fuller play “is a work of great resonance and integrity, bound to be one of the best American plays of this season.” The story that Fuller is telling, writes Kroll, is “humanized and dramatized with a deep understanding and a sense of fatality that translate into riveting and revelatory dramatic action.” Kroll also has praise for the cast, noting the performances of Brown and Caesar as particularly remarkable. A more mixed review is offered by T.E. Kalem of Time, who, while dismissing the investigation as a “dry studies exercise,” focuses on the way in which Fuller explores Waters complex character. Of Caesar’s performance, Kalem states that Caesar “merits an acting medal of honor” for his portrayal of Waters. Another mixed critique is that of Robert Asahina, whose review appeared in the Hudson Review. Asahina singles out the investigation and murder mystery as mere distractions from the more important exploration of how “racism distorts the soul of not just the oppressor but the victim,” which Fuller does very well, and for he “is to be commended.” Asahina makes the observation that Fuller did not need to set the action in the army during 1944; any war could have provided the same setting for racism, since the attitudes that Fuller expressed are not outdated today.
Fuller’s work did stir some controversy. Nearly two years after A Soldier’s Play’s debut, a particularly virulent attack appeared by Amiri Baraka, who was associated with a rival theatrical group. In his article, Baraka begins with what is intended to be a digression on how he always confuses Fuller with another writer whose work is “pretty awful.” One Page 170 | Top of Articlesource of Baraka’s animosity is the ease with which the Negro Ensemble Company is able to raise money from big banks. Baraka is often sarcastic, criticizing both Washington’s casting and Brown’s acting. His lone voice of opposition, failed to stop the momentum of A Soldier’s Play, which went on to be made into a successful movie.
Sheri E. Metzger
Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico. In this essay, she discusses how Fuller dramatizes the black soldiers’ struggle and the two wars that black soldiers fought in World War II.
During World War II, the military finally succumbed to pressure to create black combat battalions. For most of the war, these units were largely for show and had very little role in the war effort, but near the end of the war when the need for more men surfaced, a few of these units were finally mobilized and sent to Europe. Some of these men, who had anticipated they would finally engage in battle, instead helped to liberate concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Lambach. What they saw shocked them. These black soldiers, who had come from the segregation of 1940s America, were face to face with the effects of Hitler’s racism. But there are other effects of racism, as Charles Fuller proves.
In A Soldier’s Play, Fuller presents one possible effect of the racism that divides the United States in the 1940s. The black soldiers at this small Louisiana post are anxious to be sent across the ocean to fight Hitler, whom they are confident they can beat as effectively as any white soldiers can. But, as the war drags on, black soldiers sit and wait while whites are sent into battle. This is the racism of exclusion, which breeds hatred and ultimately leads to murder. In his play, Fuller demonstrates that sometimes racism can be turned inward. In A Soldier’s Play, American racism is juxtaposed against the dark shadow of Hitler’s racism. By the time the play ends, Fuller leaves the audience questioning their own prejudices and wondering if racism can be quantitatively judged.
Much of the shock that Americans felt at the end of World War II, derived from Hitler’s ghastly extermination of more than 11 million people. This outrage is couched in an awareness that American society could never engage in racism is such an ugly way. But that ignores that effects of systematic racism, which dehumanizes people and consumes them slowly, over time. Sergeant Waters is an example of how racism can destroy a man. Waters readily admits that during World War I he participated in the murder of a young black man. The murder occurred in France when white soldiers took an “ignorant colored soldier. Paid him to tie a tail to his ass and parade around naked making monkey sounds.” Waters and other blacks slit the black soldier’s throat. He tells Wilkie that blacks must turn their backs on “fools like C.J.” who would cheat their own race out of the honor and respect they deserve. Earlier, Waters tells C.J. he has gotten rid of five other soldiers at previous posts. And Waters explains that he did it because he does not want blacks cheated out of the opportunities that he thinks they will derive from fighting in World War II.
This proud admission reveals the hatred that Waters has for his fellow blacks. In his eyes, blacks must meet a higher standard that will help ensure their escape for the oppression of racism. Southern blacks, like C.J., recall stereotypes of black minstrels, who sing, dance, and clown around. Men who look like fools and behave like fools will negate all that a few good blacks can accomplish, according to Waters, who believes that all blacks must be superior to whites if blacks are to become equal to whites. But then C. J. does the unexpected and kills himself, and suddenly Waters is forced to question what he has become. He finally understands that he has willingly destroyed another man and turned his back on his people and has achieved nothing. Whites still do not like him, and they still refuse to accept him as an equal. And the audience must finally admit that they are complicit in this tragedy because they too have tolerated racism.
In constructing this play as a detective story, Fuller seeks to involve the audience in the action on the stage. Suspects are introduced and motives explored in an attempt to keep the audience guessing. In their essay on the detective elements of A Soldier’s Play, Linda K. Hughes and Howard Faulkner point out that Fuller manages to implicate the audience in the quest to solve the killer’s identity and that “to the degree that we abandon open minds and jump to conclusions about the killer’s identity at the outset, we deduce from stereotypes instead of inductively seeking the solution.” This is because Fuller’s red herrings are white officers and the Ku
Klux Klan. The setting is the south, and the audience expects the killer of a black man to be whites.
In that sense, the audience participates in racism. Hughes and Faulkner argue that the audience initially sympathizes with Waters. At the end of the first act, he appears to be sympathetic, but as the second act unfolds, the audience learns that “Waters is, if not a racist himself, one who imposes stereotypes and rigid codes of behavior on fellow blacks.” Waters’ vision of racial progress does not include fools like C.J. This act of black discriminating against black, just as white can discriminate against black, or white against white is, according to Hughes and Faulkner, suggested by “Them Nazis ain’t all crazy,” a sentence, they argue, that “reverberates throughout the fabric of the entire play.” This sentence, “reminds us that World War II was, in a sense, a racial war, a war to stop Hitler’s dream of the Super Race. But black soldiers drafted to fight Hitler first had to confront a racial war of their own in the United States.” Thus Waters in both victim and victimizer, according to Hughes and Faulkner, who also point out that the ending of the play tells the audiences that the entire company was wiped out in that “other racial war in Germany.” Thus, the audience is again reminded that both racial wars are connected for the black soldier.
It is worth remembering that Waters is not the only black man to kill another black soldier. The play’s conclusion reveals that Peterson is Waters’s killer. Both, men, as Hughes and Faulkner note, “double as victimizers impelled by white racism and their own capitulation to imposed stereotypes of ‘proper’ black behavior. Both [Peterson and Waters] are willing to kill a fellow black to uphold that code, to ‘purify’ their race; and insofar as they do so, they are also eerie parallels of Hitler, whom Waters partly admires.” But racism and prejudice are not limited to Peterson and Waters. Davenport initially thinks Byrd and Wilcox are guilty of the murder. He also assumes, erroneously it turns out, that other white officers are engaged in covering up a white officer’s involvement. Later, Taylor, who assumes that blacks are neither intelligent enough nor devious enough to have committed the murder, wants Byrd and Wilcox arrested because he believes the two white officers must be guilty, since, clearly whites must be guilty. There is enough racism and
prejudice to go around for everyone in the cast to engage in some aspect of this bigotry. Steven Carter’s analysis of Davenport’s role as detective offers some insight into how Davenport fulfills the traditional role of detective. The traditional skills of the detective, include being able to,
place reason over emotion, admit past and even current mistakes so that you can find truth in the present, view a situation as a whole rather than be blinded by a part, rid yourself of preconceptions so that you can see reality more clearly. And perhaps hardest and most important of all, acknowledge the destructive elements in your own personality so that you can better understand the destructive side of others.
Carter states that these skills are also effective in counteracting and eliminating racism. That Davenport is able to finally solve the case, according to Carter, “depends largely on his ability to free himself from racist preconceptions of any type.” Davenport is able to stay focused on the issue at hand, but, as Carter points out, both Waters and Peterson have become so confused and so involved with in-group bickering that they almost lose sight of their real enemies, white racism at home and Nazi racist imperialism abroad.” Self-hatred, the byproduct of systematic racism, is responsible for the destruction of both these men. As the play ends, Davenport tells the audience that four men were lost and that “none of their reasons—nothing anyone said, or did, would have been worth a life to men with larger hearts-men less split by the madness of race in America.”
Fuller asks his audience to question the effects of racism, to question their prejudices. In A Soldier’s Play, the effects of racial self-hatred lead two men to murder, for Waters murders C.J. just as surely as if he had tied the noose. The audience is asked to consider that ordinary men are capable of murder when pushed to extraordinary lengths. William W. Demastes, in an article that questions the role of prejudice in Fuller’s play, observes that the typical murder mystery looks to the extreme or atypical conditions that lead to murder, such as the Ku Klux Klan confronting radical blacks. Instead, says Demastes, Fuller “challenges the standard, comfortable assumptions that tensions exist only between such radical elements of both races.” The racism that resulted in Nazi concentration camps shocked people, as it should. But Fuller would like his audience to consider that racism that results in blacks murdering blacks is also shocking and deserving of greater thought. When Waters real intent toward C.J. is revealed and when Peterson is disclosed as the murderer, the audience should be dismayed as well as stunned. And they should question their own prejudices.
Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Asahina examines Fuller’s play, citing its recent Pulitzer Prize victory as well-deserved. In appraising the racial themes of the drama, the critic credits Fuller with “creating a truly tragic character” in Sergeant Waters.
For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize actually went to the season’s most deserving work: Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and directed by Douglas Turner Ward. But it deserves criticism as well as praise.
Set in 1944, A Soldier’s Play could also have been written then; it is a straightforward piece of psychological realism that takes the form of a murder mystery. In the first scene, Vernon C. Waters (Adolph Caesar), a Tech/Sergeant in the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company, is killed by two unknown assailants. Waters is black, as are the other noncoms and enlisted men at Fort Neal, Louisiana, in the year before the end of World War II. Suspecting that the killers are white and fearing a racial conflict between the soldiers and the residents of the nearby town of Tynan, the white officers restrict their troops to the base and order an investigation.
A black captain, Richard Davenport (Charles Brown), assigned to the military police, arrives at Page 173 | Top of ArticleFort Neal to conduct the inquiry (and to narrate the play, which largely consists of flashbacks). Davenport is reluctantly assisted by a white captain, Charles Taylor (Peter Friedman), a West Pointer who makes known his antagonism by aggressively announcing, “I never saw a Negro until I was twelve or thirteen.” Still, it is clear to both of them that the investigation is supposed to fail, since everyone assumes that the murderers are white and will thus be impossible to bring to justice in the South. “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Taylor warns Davenport, who sardonically acknowledges that “the matter was given the lowest priority.”
Nonetheless, the black captain persists, eventually daring to cast suspicion on two white officers, Lieutenant Byrd (Sam McMurray) and Captain Wilcox (Stephen Zettler). By this time, Taylor has grudgingly come to respect Davenport’s efforts; in fact, he is even more eager than his black colleague to bring charges against his fellow whites. But Davenport has begun to believe that the case is more than an incident of racial violence. His questioning of the black soldiers gradually leads him—and us—to the uncomfortable realization that the murder was committed by someone under Waters’ command.
As the captain digs deeper, a complex portrait of the dead sergeant emerges from the flashbacks that spring out of the interrogation sessions around which the play is structured. A veteran of World War I, Waters is a career man and a strict disciplinarian who expects his troops to toe the white man’s line as squarely as he does. When he busts Corporal James Wilkie (Steven A. Jones) to the rank of private for being drunk on duty, Waters complains, “No wonder they treat us like dogs.” His favorite target for abuse is a Southern black, Private C. J. Memphis (David Alan Grier), who represents everything he despises. Pleasant but slow-witted, Memphis is the star of the company baseball team, as well as a mournful blues guitarist and singer. But to Waters, a Northerner, Memphis is nothing but an embarrassing exemplar of a “strong black buck.” “Niggers aren’t like that today,” the sergeant sneers.
Waters is no simple Uncle Tom, however. “This country’s at war,” he tells his men, “and you niggers are soldiers.” To him, they must be more than good soldiers—they must be the best, for their own sake if not the army’s. “Most niggers just don’t care,” he claims. “But not havin’s no excuse for not gettin’. We got to challenge the man in his arena.”
In his twisted way, Waters truly believes that the black race can only advance by following his example—by being better than the white man at his own game. “Do you know the damage one ignorant Negro can do?” he asks Memphis. “The black race can’t afford you laughin’ and clownin’.”
Davenport soon learns the lengths to which Waters went to “close our ranks on the chittlins and collard greens style.” During the year before his death, the company team had been so successful that a game with the Yankees was in the works if the Fort Neal soldiers were to win their conference title. But the better the troops do on the field, the worse they do on the base. “Every time we beat them at baseball,” the soldiers complain about their white opponents, “they get back at us any way they can”—in work details ranging from KP to painting the officers’ club. Waters, of course, believes “these men need all the discipline they can get,” since he regards their athletic achievements as frivolous, even dangerous, because they reinforce the white man’s stereotype of the black.
To his horror, Davenport discovers that Waters found a way of eliminating Memphis while simultaneously sabotaging the team. The sergeant framed the hapless private for a mysterious shooting on the base (“one less fool for the race to be ashamed of”), and when Memphis killed himself in the stockade, the players threw the championship game in protest. But the cost of Waters’ demented discipline was a growing desire for vengeance among his troops. As Davenport finally determines, two of them—Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) and Private Tony Smalls (Brent Jennings)—took matters into their own hands and killed their tormentor. Yet even at the moment of his death, Waters had the last word, or words—the same ones that opened the play. “You got to be like them,” he Page 174 | Top of Articlecries in torment. “But the rules are fixed. It doesn’t make any difference. They still hate you.”
Whatever else can be said about A Soldier’s Play, Fuller must be credited for creating a truly tragic character for whom those words are an anguished, self-proclaimed epitaph. It is in Waters that the toll of racism is most apparent. To be sure, all the black characters in the drama are representative of different modes of dealing with white oppression: the cautious rationality of Davenport, the self-abasement of Wilkie (brilliantly brought to life by Jones), the unenlightened self-interest of Smalls. Likewise, Memphis embodies the black past, stolid and humble, just as surely as Peterson does the future, or at least one possible future: righteous but also arrogant.
Yet Waters is unique among the men by being both the engineer of his own downfall and the victim of his circumstances; like all genuinely tragic figures, he attains universality because of rather than despite the stubborn reality of his particularity. From the smallest of his affectations—the pompous, gravelly voice, the pipe-smoking, the military carriage, the cultivated disdain for his inferiors—to the enormity of his crimes against his own people in their name, the costs of Waters’ unnatural, willful assimilation are painfully apparent. (“Any man don’t know where he belongs,” says Memphis, “got to be in a lot of pain.”) Fuller’s resolute writing and Caesar’s forceful acting have created a truly unlikeable yet strangely sympathetic character, unpleasant yet unexpectedly revealing of what we fear as the worst accommodationist impulses in ourselves.
Unfortunately, Fuller does not handle the investigation into Waters’ violent death as ably as he does the sergeant’s tortured life. Somehow the murder mystery comes to dominate the other elements of the play; the larger problems of human behavior in adverse circumstances become secondary to the whodunit questions of motive and opportunity. True, the investigation gives the drama a certain forward momentum, but not enough to disguise the fact that almost everything interesting takes place in the past. The most compelling figure is the victim, whose life is revealed in flashback; the action in the present is, for the most part, structured according to the familiar strategy of revelations leading to further revelations and ultimately to a rather comfortable resolution.
Not too comfortable, mind you; Fuller is to be commended for honestly exposing how racism distorts the soul of not just the oppressor but the victim. For this genuine revelation (as opposed to the convenient revelations that advance the plot) to matter to us, however, it must matter to the character through whose eyes we perceive it. And it is not unreasonable to expect that Davenport’s discoveries will change him—somehow. After all, he began his inquiry more or less convinced that the killers were white, and then had to overcome his own prejudices to uncover the truth. He could also see something of himself in Waters. Though younger, the captain must have had to pay the same dues as the sergeant—perhaps even more, to rise to the higher rank.
Yet Davenport maintains an eerie emotional distance throughout (which is underscored by Brown’s rather affectless performance; he is so cool that he practically freezes into rigidity). Perhaps Fuller thereby meant to comment on the captain’s notion of soldierly conduct, which causes him to be almost color-blind. Indeed, early in the play, Davenport rebuffs Wilkie’s presumption of racial familiarity (“You all we got down here,” the private claims).
But this sort of irony seems absent elsewhere, particularly from the author’s decision to set the play so far in the past. (I do not think the drama required the segregated army, which came to an end after the war; in fact, the play might have been more pointed had it been set after integration. As for the war itself, it could as easily have been Korea or Vietnam—or no war at all, for all the difference it makes to the action.) Did Fuller believe that the attitudes represented by, say, Memphis and Waters would seem outdated today? That Davenport, too, would seem anachronistic, or even Peterson insufficiently militant? Or did he think (or does he recognize) that setting A Soldier’s Play in 1944 somehow lets all of us—playwright, cast, audience—off the hook? Or was it that he wanted all concerned to consider the drama as art rather than as “relevant” social comment? It is not that I suspect Fuller’s motives—it is just that I don’t know what they are.
Source: Robert Asahina. “Theatre Chronicle” in the Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, no. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 439–42.
Calling A Soldier’s Play a “flawed but estimable” work, Gilman offers a mostly favorable review, Page 175 | Top of Articlenoting that Fuller’s play is representative of the growth of the Negro Ensemble Company that produced the drama.
After fourteen seasons, the Negro Ensemble Company can no longer be regarded as an exotic enterprise on the fringe. The N.E.C. came into being because the established American theater didn’t seem to have any place for the black experience. So the group proceeded to carve such a place for itself, with determination if not always a clear notion of what it was doing. Its stance was either aggressive, that of an adversary, or defensive, which meant insular and self-validating; it stumbled, fell, rose and kept going.
Never quite a true ensemble, in that it frequently brings in performers for particular productions, the company has had difficulty creating an identifiable style, a way of doing things unmistakably its own. If it still has that difficulty, at least its repertory has become much more flexible, so that its socially oriented realism has lost some of the pugnacious, parochial quality that once marred it.
Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, the opening production of the N.E.C.’s fifteenth season, is exemplary of this change and, as I see it, this growth. A flawed but estimable play, it’s about the black experience but is supple enough in its thematic range and social perspectives to treat that experience as part of a complex whole, as part of American reality in its widest sense. To be released from an adversary position may mean a loss of fierceness—it certainly means a reduction in ideological thunder—but it can make for an increase in subtle wisdom and intellectual rigor.
Not that A Soldier’s Play is a triumph of the dramatic imagination. But it is intelligent and morally various enough to overcome some basic uncertainties and remnants of the N.E.C.’s older confrontational manner, and so commend itself to our attention. Set in a Louisiana army camp in 1944, the play deals with the fatal shooting of a black sergeant (reflecting the times, blacks are called “negroes” or “coloreds”), a martinet who, out of shame at his people’s seeming acceptance of their inferior status, is tougher on his own men than are their white officers.
He’s far from likable, but when he’s killed and the culprits aren’t found, the mood turns ugly among
the black soldiers. At first, the Klan is suspected, then some white officers, but the brass wants no trouble and the incident is shunted aside. Finally, an investigator is sent from Washington, a black lieutenant with a law degree from Howard University. His relationship with the white captain previously in charge of the case makes up the moral and psychological center of the drama, which on one level proceeds as a moderately absorbing detective story.
The captain, an earnest liberal, is convinced he knows who the killers are but feels his hands are tied, and he grows impatient with the black officer’s slow, careful inquiry. The real problem, however, is the dislocation the captain experiences in his abstract good will. ‘ I can’t get used to it,” he tells the black man, “your uniform, your bars.” Still, he comes to accept the investigator, whose mind is much more in tune with reality than his own and who eventually brings the case to a surprising conclusion. Along the way there are some deft perceptions about both political and psychological matters, and a jaunty historical sense: “Look out, Hitler,” a soldier says, “the niggers is comin’ to get your ass.”
The biggest burden the play carries is the direction of Douglas Turner Ward, the N.E.C.’s artistic director, who is also a well-known playwright. Ward manages the many flashbacks, through which the action is propelled, with a heavy hand: lights go up or down with painful slowness, figures from the past take their places obediently in the present. There are also some soft spots among the performances and an unpleasant ending, or coda, in which the black officer gratuitously reminds his white colleague of the lessons taught and learned. Yet in its calm concern for prickly truths and its intellectual sobriety, A Soldier’s Play elicits the audience’s approval, if not its boisterous enthusiasm.
Source: Richard Gilman. Review of A Soldier’s Play in the Nation, Vol. 234, no. 3, January 23, 1982, pp. 90–91.
Asahina, Robert. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 439–42.
Baraka, Amiri. “The Descent of Charles Fuller into Pulitzerland and the Need for African-American institutions,” in Black American Literature Forum Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 51–54.
Barnes, Clive. A review of A Soldier’s Play, in the New York Post, November 23, 1981.
Beaufort, John. A review of A Soldier’s Play, in The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1981
Carter, Steven R. “The Detective as Solution: Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play” in Clues Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1991, pp. 33–42.
Demastes, William W. “Charles Fuller and A Soldier’s Play: Attacking Prejudice, Challenging Form,” in Studies in American Drama Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 43–56.
Hughes, Linda K. and Howard Faulkner. “The Role of Detection in A Soldier’s Play” in Clues Vol. 7, No. 2 Fall-Winter, 1986, pp.83–97.
Kalem, T. E. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Time, January 18, 1982.
Kroll, Jack. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Newsweek, December 21, 1981.
Rich, Frank. A review of A Soldier’s Play in The New York Times, November 27, 1981.
Watt, Douglas. A review of A Soldier’s Play in the Daily News, November 25, 1981.
Wilson, Edwin. A review of A Soldier’s Play in The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 1982.
Cooper, Michael L. The Double V Campaign: African Americans and World War II, Lodestar Books, 1998.
This book is designed for adolescents, ages 9-12. Cooper describes the problems black soldiers faced as they fought two wars, one against a foreign enemy and one against racism in the United States.
Dryden, Charles W. A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman, University of Alabama Press, 1997.
This is a personal account of Dryden desire to be a pilot during World War II and how his belief in himself helped him to succeed.
Harriott, Esther, ed. American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, McFarland & Company, 1988, pp. 112-125.
In this 1982 interview, Fuller discusses his work and the process of adapting A Soldier’s Play to film.
Hay, Samuel A. African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis, Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Traces the history of Black theatre from its origin as 19th-century social protest.
Sandler, Stanley. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of WW II, Smithsonian History of Aviation Series, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
This is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, as told by a military historian, who recounts the story behind the formation of the squadron and their role in the war.