The National Tour of A Soldier’s Play lands in Dayton this week (its only Ohio stop) directed by the prolific Kenny Leon (American Son, The Wiz Live!, A Raisin In The Sun) and led on stage by Broadway legend Norm Lewis(Les Miserables, NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert).
Originally mounted at NYC’s Roundabout Theatre, this production of Charles Fuller’s military crime drama A Soldier’s Play won the 2020 Tony for Best Revival of a play; adding it to its myriad of awards in various incarnations from stage to film since its 1981 release. Military dramas have a particular niche in American theatre. Very few ring as powerfully as this one.
Fuller’s early-80’s text has unfortunately aged very well; in so much as to say that the racial overtones that permeate the script feel as relevant as they have ever been – perhaps even more so.
A Murder in Louisiana
The year is 1944. On a Louisiana Army base, a black sergeant is murdered, and a series of interrogations triggers a gripping barrage of questions about sacrifice, service, and identity in America. One cannot help but think of the news cycle of recent years while hearing Fuller’s searing account. Leon and this remarkable cast do not waste one word or gripping moment. Co-presented by The Human Race Theatre Company and Dayton Live, this is easily the definitive revival of this seminal work.
Norm Lewis’ voice is as recognizable to American theatre-goers as James Earl Jones’ is to “Star Wars” fans. Hearing Lewis tear through the dialogue is a pleasure in and of itself. As if that weren’t enough, this is not, as one would imagine, the “Norm Lewis”-show. Indeed, the entire ensemble matches his energy in every scene and every riveting line delivery. The rest of this cast is at the top of their game here. Most recognizably, Eugene Lee’s performance as Sgt. Waters is extraordinary. His vile nature is enhanced by Lee’s commitment to honesty and impressive physicality in the role.
The same can be said of Sheldon D. Brown’s “CJ” – a performance so searing, I would immediately hire him to re-create it for a new film adaptation. (Notably, Brown is a Dayton native and 2010 graduate of Stivers School for the Arts). Rounding out the top-notch cast is Branden Davon Lindsay, William Connell, Will Adams, Tarik Lowe, Alex Michael Givens, Howard W. Overshown, Malik Esoj Childs, Chattan Mayes Johnson and Matthew Goodrich.
“A Soldier’s Play” Visuals
The design work is gorgeous, intimate, and appropriately stark – even on the vast stage of the Victoria. Dede Ayite’s costumes, Dan Moses Schreier’s sound concept, Derek McLane’s industrial set, and Allen Lee Hughes’ striking lighting design support a director’s vision that manages to conceptualize while also remaining intimately grounded. Additionally, Leon’s use of music throughout the piece is inspired (and spoiler alert – might satisfy those who want to hear a few bars from Mr. Lewis).
Kudos to The Human Race and Dayton Live for understanding how important it was to add Dayton to this tour’s limited schedule. With A Soldier’s Play, Roundabout Theatre proves once again why they are regularly invited to the Tony Awards. And Dayton theatre proves that its finger is ever on the pulse of what matters in contemporary theatre.
Tickets and performance information for A Soldier’s Play are available at DaytonLive.org. Performances continue through February 19 at The Victoria Theatre in Dayton.