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Theater Review

Characterizations in 'Soldier's Play' Put Face on War, Racism


It's 1944, and Americans are at war overseas with a man who preaches racism and murder. Meanwhile, back home at an Army base in Louisiana, racism proliferates unchecked. That includes internalized racism, which the soldiers in a black platoon soon find to be the most terrifying kind.

Charles Fuller's harrowing study of self-negation, "A Soldier's Play," earned the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for drama and was made into the film "A Soldier's Story."

Always worth revisiting, it's a smart choice for a joint presentation by the Long Beach Playhouse, the Paul Robeson Players and INAB Productions meant to boost the telling of African American stories and to draw new patrons to the theater.

What Charles W. Gray's staging in the playhouse's smaller Studio Theatre lacks in crispness and fluidity, it mostly makes up for in compelling characterizations.

Robert Joseph commands the stage as Capt. Richard Davenport, the narrator and pivotal character. Tall and sturdily built, he cuts an impressive figure in his uniform and MacArthur-like aviator glasses. He is a beacon of hope and a point of pride for the men of a company assigned menial tasks at Ft. Neal, La., while awaiting orders.

A lawyer, Davenport is sent to Ft. Neal to investigate the shooting death of a black sergeant. Were the murderers local Ku Klux Klan members? White officers? The sergeant's own soldiers? Joseph's Davenport sorts through the clues while calmly but firmly facing down the white captain (David Krzisnik), who is attempting to get Davenport off the case.

The murdered sergeant in flashbacks is a man of many conflicts, captured to anguishing effect by Robert Crow. Sgt. Vernon Waters wants his men to be good soldiers and good African Americans, but his ideas about the latter are twisted by shame and self-hatred.

Pvt. C.J. Memphis, a good-natured soldier popular among his peers, has the misfortune of running afoul of Sgt. Waters' notions. Eric Quander's Memphis projects sunny vitality, and his resonant blues singing adds rich texture.

Jou Jou Papailler searingly conveys the quandary of a soldier caught between duty and community; Charles Allen makes a strong impression, and Neil Cox is compelling. In Steven Grodt's set design, stark wood walls and a backdrop of barren woods evoke bleakness and withering hope.

This timely presentation of "A Soldier's Play" reminds how little has changed in 55 years. Again, America has stepped into a war fought largely over race, while at home the battle against intolerance is far from won.

* "A Soldier's Play," Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St. 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and May 30. $12-$15. Ends June 5. (562) 494-1616. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Robert Joseph: Capt. Richard Davenport

Robert Crow: Tech. Sgt. Vernon C. Waters

David Krzisnik: Capt. Charles Taylor

Jou Jou Papailler: Pvt. 1st Class Melvin Peterson

Eric Quander: Pvt. C.J. Memphis

Neil Cox: Pvt. Tony Smalls

Charles Allen: Pvt. James Wilkie

A Long Beach Playhouse, Paul Robeson Players and INAB Productions production. Written by Charles Fuller. Directed by Charles W. Gray. Set: Steven Grodt. Costumes: Donna Fritsche. Lights: Robyn Colburn. Sound: Lionel Ball. Stage manager: David Allaun.

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