They still hate you!: Racism Institutionalized, Internalized, Ignited
At: The Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 U.S. Route 1, S. Chesterfield, VA 23834
Performances: January 28 – March 4, 2023
Ticket Prices: $15-$49
Info: (804) 748-5203 or https://www.swiftcreekmill.com
Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play is set on a fictitious Army base, Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944 – at a time when the U.S. Army was still legally segregated. But the mystery and inflammatory speculation surrounding the murder of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters could have been taken directly from the latest news in 2023.
When I think of this Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the first thing that comes to mind is Adolph Caesar who played the role of Sergeant Waters in the original off-Broadway production by the Negro Ensemble Company, New York, 1981. In that production, Denzel Washington also appeared as Private First Class Melvin Peterson and Samuel L. Jackson played the role of Private Louis Henson.
I can’t help but wonder, how did the actors and audiences of 1981 feel about A Soldier’s Play and how do their thoughts and experiences compare to those of the actors and audiences of 2023? The more things change (?) the more they stay the same – and this trope especially rings true when it comes to matters of race in America.
Along those same lines, the ”trigger warnings” of strong language, racial slurs, physical violence and gunshot effects may have been startling 40 years ago, but seem de rigueur by today’s standards where life imitates art imitates life. Director Shanea N. Taylor wrote in her notes, “Charles Fuller believed, ‘You can change the world with words.’ 40 some years later from winning the Pulitzer Prize for his words, we find ourselves in a position where we might question whether this rings true.”
In A Soldier’s Play we get to see – and internalize – the impact of 9 Black men sharing a stage and sharing words and thoughts normally reserved for the relative safety of Black spaces (e.g., home, the barber shop). Do Fuller’s words sufficiently explain the burden of how racism can make a Black man hate himself? Or are we so committed to the fallacy that racism is over that only those directly affected can truly understand? A Soldier’s Play opens the door to further understanding.
This deeply troubling story shines as an ensemble work. The comraderie and banter between the characters feels authentic (coming from one who has never been in a military environment). It comes as no surprise that the Black soldiers are given the most menial and dirtiest tasks: painting, cleaning, manual labor. In spite of their sub par treatment, they want to serve the only country they know. When orders come to ship out, they are excited. Ike wants to know if the colored boys can fight? There is only one response, “I’ve been fighting all my life.”
The soldiers’ relationships seem even more solidified by the passive aggressive racism of their white Captain, played by Chandler Hubbard. You see, Captain Taylor is aware of his own racism, and readily admits that he is disgusted by the very thought of Captain Davenport (Keydron Dunn), the Black lawyer sent to investigate the murder of Sergeant Waters. At the same time, he holds on to a sense of justice in wanting to solve the murder – but not so much so that he is willing to discipline the white officers under his command who are overtly racist (Hunter Keck and Gordon Little Eagle Graham). Waters is – or was – an ambitious Black officer who is himself offended by the presence of southern Black men who do not live up to his standards. This information gives added meaning to his final words before being shot, “They still hate you!” No matter how hard he tries to assimilate, no matter if he works hard and send his children to predominantly white schools, he is still Black, and still the recipient of institutional and personal racism.
There were some standouts in the ensemble: Joshua Maurice Carter as Private C.J. Memphis, the innocent young man who was driven to suicide by Sergeant Waters’ mental attacks; Kamau “Mu Cuzzo” Akinwole as Private James Wilkie, an unwilling pawn in Waters’ machinations; Erich Appleby as the earnest Corporal Bernard Cobb. Hubbard did an amazing job establishing a balance between doing the eight thing and embracing the comfort of his upbringing. But A Soldier’s Play works best within the framework of the ensemble. The one weak link, unfortunately, seemed to be Keydron Dunn in the import role of the key figure, Captain Richard Davenport. I found out later that Dunn was under the weather the night I saw the show, so that may account for the fumbled lines and uneven performance – so unlike his usual execution.
Mercedes Schaum has designed a stark barracks, consisting of just a few cots and footlockers, but Joe Doran’s lighting adds satisfying emotional depth and visual dimension. Taylor’s direction allows the story to unfold at a natural pace – perhaps less inflammatory than I was expecting, or less shocking that my memory allowed for – but nonetheless satisfying. If you have never seen A Soldier’s Play or, like me, have not revisited it in some 40 years, please see it. It’s the kind of theatre that stays with you for a lifetime.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY
By Charles Fuller
Directed by Shanea Taylor
Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters: Larry Akin Smith
Captain Charles Taylor: Chandler Hubbard
Corporal Bernard Cobb: Erich Appleby
Private First Class Melvin Peterson: K’Hari Zy’on
Corporal Ellis: Gary King
Private Louis Henson: Tre’ LaRon
Private James Wilkie: Kamau “Mu Cuzzo” Akinwole
Private Tony Smalls: Kieryn Burton
Captain Richard Davenport: Keydron Dunn
Private C.J. Memphis: Joshua Maurice Carter
Lieutenant Byrd: Hunter Keck
Captain Wilcox: Gordon Little Eagle Graham
Directed by Shanea Taylor
Scenic Design by Mercedes Schaum
Lighting Design by Joe Doran
Costume Design by Maura Lynch Cravey
Technical Direction by Liz Allmon
Fighting/Intimacy Consulting by Stephanie “Tippi” Hart
About two hours with one intermission
Regular $49. Seniors, Military & First Responders $44. Students $15.
Photos: Kieran Rundle
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