A SOLDIER’S PLAY
A Soldier’s Play is exactly what a theatre presentation should be—an interesting story, perfect performances and direction, many laughs within a very serious and important subject, and at just under two hours, short enough to leave us wanting more.
It’s a murder mystery with a social conscience. And it’s a refresher course on how to be a human being. The topic is racism in an Army unit in Louisiana in 1944, so the pain of that made me think twice about seeing this excellent play at the Ahmanson. I’m stressed-out enough by the real-life occurrences of that evil; I don’t like to see it on stage. But I knew that the story is a powerful one, and I love that downtown LA theatre, so I bucked-up and attended the opening night.
And I’m so glad I did. This National Tour of the Tony-winning revival is excellent! And goes by in a flash; it’s riveting the entire time. I was so engrossed in the tale and the performances that I barely wrote any notes, which doesn’t happen very often. I usually have a comment after every line!
A Soldier’s Play begins with the shooting death of the company’s tough sergeant, and goes from there. The mystery is uncovering who did it. The narrative is very well done, including the many flashbacks that let us in on the whole story. Even with very subtle set changes, and no wardrobe ones, it’s very clear which parts are flashbacks and which are the current investigation into the murder. I appreciated that non-confusion.
Every actor is perfection, but a few stood out to me, for one reason or another.
Eugene Lee, as Sergeant Waters, is terrifying. And his on-stage demise is spot-on. (I’m not ruining anything for you because we see him get killed at the very beginning of the show. And then we have another look at it in one of those flashbacks, more up-close this time.) I sure wish I had seen him do it before I had to do a death scene in the far-from-great film Brothers In Arms several years ago. (Don’t ask.) It would have helped me immensely, (although even this cast couldn’t have helped that movie much. But now you all want to find it, right?)
I had seen Norm Lewis, (who stars as the Army lawyer, Captain Davenport,) once before, but as a singer, not an actor. It was in a wonderful charity variety show, The ALS Association Golden West Chapter’s One Starry Night…From Broadway To Hollywood, at the Pasadena Playhouse eight years ago. Since I knew going in to A Soldier’s Play that it’s a play, as opposed to a musical, (duh–it’s right there in the title!,) I was a tad sad that we would not get to hear his dulcet singing tones this time, but then…we did! For only a couple of seconds at the beginning of each act, but it’s a treat. (So do not be late to your seat when you see this show!) The opening night audience went nuts for those few notes. I’m glad the director, Kenny Leon, added that bit of appropriate music into this revival, (which I believe was not in the original 1981 staging.) And even with that dearth of singing, Norm’s booming speaking voice is a joy for the ears.
Outside of Norm, I had never seen any other members of the cast before, which I always appreciate because then I can view them solely as their characters. And, in this case, that was the most true for Sheldon D. Brown, who, as Private C.J. Memphis, a sensitive country boy, is heartbreakingly excellent.
Shortly after Sheldon’s impressive scene, along comes Malik Esoj Childs, as Private Tony Smalls, whose pain and emotional suffering are so real that I wanted to reach-out and hand him a tissue from my perfect seat in the center of the fourth row! (If my mother had witnessed what he was going through, she would have.)
That’s really all you need to know, other than that I must admit that I figured-out “who done it” early on. But that’s not really this presentation’s raison d’être. Playwright Charles Fuller, who won the the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for this play, most likely wanted to inspire a discussion of racism in as interesting a way as possible when he wrote it in 1982.
I’ve really never understood racism. I was raised to know that all human beings are equal. So when I was first seriously confronted with horrifying bigotry in my early 20s, when my boyfriend and I were an inter-racial couple, I was shocked by it. And greatly saddened. And I still am.
Just as heinous as someone abusing another human of a differing ethnicity is a person abusing their own, though, a topic this play brings up. What is wrong with this world?!
To get off that sadness for a moment, I have one weird personal sidebar: I usually don’t like shows with an all-male cast. Being as boy-crazy as I am, one would think I’d love it, but that’s not the case. Perhaps that’s because it reminds me of a weird night back in the day when my friend Brad and I were hip-hop club promoters, (which means that we were the ones who invited people to “our” nights.) The quick version is that we had decided to quit a particular club, so we were throwing one last soiree there. I still did my job of inviting my guests, which, of course, were mainly guys, while Brad’s list consisted of the girls. But that last night, my three girlfriends and I looked around and noticed…everyone else was male! Brad had decided that since we were quitting, he wouldn’t work that day, and invited no one! So everyone was just my guest, which meant they were all males who were furious with me that there were no other girls there that night. I told my three female friends that we had to try to dance with about fifty guys apiece! What a nightmare. So whenever I see anything featuring all men, I get bad flashbacks to that debacle.
But in the case of A Soldier’s Play, I never thought about that situation even once during the show. Since the story is about an army unit in 1944, no ladies are necessary. (Sorry, actresses seeking roles!)
Speaking of seeking, no matter who you are, you should be seeking tickets to see this very worthwhile production while you can. I promise it’s a winner.
A Soldier’s Play running through June 25, 2023
Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave.