Saturday, February 20, 2010

Guest Review: ASU "A Soldier's Play"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley--Critic & Actress

Eager audience members mingling in the lobby of Alabama State University were surprised to find themselves joined by a company of young soldiers at attention, setting the tone for what proved to be an admirable staging of Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play", which ASU is entering into the 2010 Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Fuller's play, which also won the N.Y. Drama Critics' Circle Award for best American play when it debuted in 1981, is a classic "whodunnit". The mystery is used to deliver an exploration of racism [both interracial and intra-racial] and the power struggles it creates. It uses well the red herrings created by people's mischaracterizations of others through stereotyping.

Set in 1943 at the then segregated U.S. Army's Fort Neal, LA, the play opens with the murder of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters. A light-skinned black man, Waters has schemed to use his rise through the military NCO ranks to raise his station in life, hoping one day that, by his successfully emulating white people, his children will rub elbows with the children of well-to-do white people.

The chief obstacle in his trajectory is "lazy and shiftless Negroes", especially "Southern Negroes", whom Waters says make a mockery of their race and damage any hopes of respect from whites. -- Throughout his military career, he has targeted these "geechees" in an effort to clear them from his environment, going so far as to kill a black soldier who donned a tail and danced like a monkey for white soldiers' entertainment.

When Waters, wel played by Andrew Preston, targets a beloved member of his unit, Private C.J. Memphis, to teach him a lesson and to set an example for the other black soldiers at the base, he sets his own demise in motion.

Captain Richard Davenport, assigned to investigate the murder, is a rarity himself. A Howard University graduate and an officer, he sees possibly more racial discrimination from his equals and superiors than does any other black soldier in the play. In his initial encounter with the white Captain Charles Taylor, he is told that his color signifies that the Army does not take seriously the investigation of the murder of a black sergeant.

Sayyed Shabbaz cooly plays Davenport as an "all business" sort who expects respect, if not for himself as a black man at least for his rank. His foil, Taylor, is matter-of-fact about the Army's regard for black soldiers and oficers. You expect Taylor to be derogatory and condescencing, and he is -- "Being in charge just doesn't look good on a negro," he tells Davenport. Yet Taylor sincerely wants to find Waters' killer or killers, even if they are, as he suspects, white officers within his own command. As for the suspects in Waters' murder, they are the usual ones when the victim is a black man: Ku Klux Klan members, white coldiers. But Davenport's keen eye detects something deeper.

When the silly and jocular, but oh-so observant Memphis saya of Waters, "Any man not sure of where he belongs must be in a lot of pain," he heralds an outcome for the audience: When power, pain and hatred mix, the damage will be great. Nepierre Green plays the "fool" Memphis with a touching authenticity; it's believable that this character can have sympathy for a man who constantly belittles him and his fellow soldiers for simply being who they are: young men who delight in their women, music, baseball, and hopes of getting a chance to fight Hitler's army.

The history between Waters and Memphis is relayed to Davenport during his investigation by Private James Wilkie, whom Waters stripped of his corporal's stripes for being drunk on guard duty, and Private First Class Melvin Peterson, who is the only soldier to stand up to Waters' abuse. Mikell Sapp and Julius Thompson, in the roles of Wilkie and Peterson respectively, deliver good performances throughout, particularly in their contributions to the ensemble in scenes with fellow enlisted men in their segregated unit.

While there are key elements of the story that are relayed in dialogue between a handful of central characters, much understanding of the world within the play is communicated by the ensemble that comprises the company of enlisted men. This young cast, featuring many of ASU's freshman and sophomore actors, manages admirably to convey life in a segregated Army and in a segregated country. The characters' life experiences as black men and black soldiers is complimented by the actors' honest portrayal of frustrated and energetic young manhood.

All this plays out on Alton England's cleverly designed set. The soldiers' barracks is authentic looking, and a moving set piece doubles as an interior and exterior setting. An obstacle course element triples as a roadside murder scene and a stockade. England makes good use of the theater's versatile but small stage.

The production's authenticity is greatly enhanced by the efforts of costume designer Ramona Ward. Even the creases in the soldiers' uniforms appeared to be military regulation.

Often overlooked, but powerful in this production, is sound design. Brandon Hubrins and Alexandra Phillips use percussion to convey presision, tension, and danger. -- Wednesday night's production pas somewhat plagued by sound cue troubles that have likely been cured for future performances.

"A Soldier's Play" tells an engaging story that all fans of mysteries and stories on the human condition and war will surely enjoy. It is imperative that the audience hears every line. This is sometimes made difficult however, by the young cast's mistaking fast delivery of dialogue for pacing [common among young actors], but it is not insurmountable. It is obvious too that some scenes were worked harder in rehearsal than others, but nothing truly falls short, and nothing seems overwrought. If anything, a larger flaw is that the physical tension and action in the smaller scenes between Taylor and Davenport and Davenport and the soldiers, does not match the tension in the dialogue. A few cases of tentative line delivery slow the pace and interrupt the strong characterization, but this too is minimal.

Director Brian Martin and his cast have taken on a complex and hefty pplay, and despite some unevenness among the major characters, they have delivered a strong production that took the audience in and earned their appreciative applause.