A Soldier’s Play follows the murder investigation of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee) at Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944. Playwright Charles Fuller delves into power struggles within the military and between the characters with attention to rank and race.
After our introduction to the army base and the situation at hand, Captain Richard Davenport (Norm Lewis) shows up on the scene to investigate. In this moment you can tell half the audience came to hear Norm Lewis sing, as the audience audibly reacts or your theatre buddy grabs your arm in excitement.
When Davenport meets the commanding officer of the base, Captain Charles Taylor (William Connel), the first clear power struggle appears. Connel plays a young, eager, but ignorant officer that almost apologetically demands respect.
Norm Lewis plays a seasoned officer you feel has earned his title who won’t take no for an answer. Using sunglasses to show when he is asserting dominance vs. collaborating with Connel and others is a nice touch.
We only meet Waters through memories, but Lee throws his own power struggle into the ring with this character. He plays a digression from what sounded like a great mentor the privates liked at the beginning to a broken man obsessed with becoming more “white.”
This creates conflict among the privates as each character has their own opinion about their path forward as Black men. Tarik Lowe in particular gives an honest performance as Private First Class Melvin Peterson standing up to Waters as these opinions clash.
In addition to collaborating with actors to balance power on stage, director Kenny Leon kept the show moving better in this play than in any I’ve seen in a long time. The pacing in A Soldier’s Play is excellent. We aren’t left with a dull moment between the tight dialogue, the rhythmic movement, and melodic music. While some shows leave you wondering how long you have left until intermission, this play captivates from beginning to end. You’ll wonder where time went each time the house lights come up.
The whole ensemble creates great rhythm throughout this story with their movement (props to Movement Consultant Jared Grimes), voices, and use of the set. This rhythm keeps the show moving during scene changes, enhances the music in the play, and sets the tone for scenes.
As great as the blocking and movement are over all, the fight choreography is underwhelming. It often lags too much and is too front-and-center to hide that the characters make no contact. For a play that features many physical fights, this aspect feels less real and takes us out of the moment. More attention to this detail could have enhanced the already engaging production.
While A Soldier’s Play is not a musical, it has songs woven in as a pure extension of the characters’ souls. Norm Lewis first appears singing the end of a song the privates started, teasing the audience of his solo to come. When he later reprises the song, his voice is everything we hope for.
The rest of the cast does not disappoint, though. Sheldon D. Brown as Private C.J. Memphis especially captures our attention and our hearts when he picks up his guitar and opens his mouth to sing.
The lighting design (Allen Lee Hughes) blends beautifully with the actors’ movement and the story’s shifts. At the beginning of the play, for example, we hear building music and percussion from the actors, while light slowly spills in. These first few minutes create an anticipation that holds our attention the rest of the show.
The lighting also proves useful when switching between flashbacks and present day. We see warmer tones during present narration and cooler tones during recollection. Derek McLane’s set design also melds with the lighting design to create a cohesive experience.
Bottom Line (TLDR)
Whether you’re a fan of murder mysteries or a fan of Norm Lewis, you’ll enjoy this show. If you’re looking for art that explores themes from Black history or just looking for great theatre that will make two hours fly by, don’t miss A Soldier’s Play. And since this will be the tour’s only Ohio appearance, make sure you get tickets now!
After the show, continue the conversation and check out “The Charles Fuller Experience,” a gallery in the mezzanine on the 3rd floor of the theater. This tribute to the playwright’s “life in theatre and social action” is presented by Dayton Live and Scripted in Black.