Broadway’s A Soldier’s Play begins in the dark, with a low hum and boot stomp. The men in a Black army battalion at Fort Neal in Louisiana begin with a working song—a vision director Kenny Leon instinctively had from the moment he decided to revive Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play for Roundabout Theatre Company (the play’s Broadway debut).
“I felt like—especially in a revival—I think that it’s important, as a director, to go to storytelling 101 [which is] like ‘in the beginning there were three little bears,’ so, for me, I wanted to create a communal and spiritual space to start the play, hence the men in the dark singing,” says Leon. “Their voices bring you in, so it makes the audience lean in.”
For the actors, “to start the show singing is the best thing you could ever do,” says Billy Eugene Jones, who plays Private Wilkie, “because it allows us to get loose and there’s nothing that’s scripted for several minutes, so you get a chance to really get relaxed on stage. And by the time you start speaking, you listen.”
Indeed, the powerful, gritty song launches the play smoothly—making the murder of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters in the opening scene all the more startling. The production, which opened January 21 at the American Airlines Theatre, stars three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier as that Sergeant—described by the cast with words like “diabolical” and “insidious”—and Blair Underwood as the Black military police officer, Captain Davenport, sent to Fort Neal to investigate the murder. Captain Taylor, played by Jerry O’Connell, is having none of it—not because he wants a coverup; on the contrary, he wants to find the murderer but thinks a Black officer can’t earn the community’s trust to solve the crime.
Davenport persists, and we follow his investigation through interviews of the men of Fort Neal, including Nnamdi Asomugha’s Private First Class Peterson, McKinley Belcher III’s Private Henson, Rob Demery’s Corporal Cobb, Jared Grimes’ Private Smalls, Billy Eugene Jones’ Private Wilkie, Nate Mann’s Lieutenant Byrd, Warner Miller’s Corporal Ellis, J. Alphonse Nicholson’s Private Memphis, and Lee Aaron Rosen’s Captain Wilcox. The full company went through training with military consultant Christopher P. Wolfe to learn more about military culture, history, and practice military bearing. “How you walk, how you talk, how you stand, how you salute, it’s very specific, it’s very precise,” says Underwood.
Amidst the marches and calls to attention, through flashbacks we learn about Waters, his sinister ways of manipulating his men, and his true objective. Waters is a man fighting for equality, fighting to be seen as equal by the White Man, but feels dragged down by some of his Black brethren. “The real discovery to me was,” says Grier, “there is a serial killer or perpetrator aspect [to Waters]. Like any kind of serial criminal who is momentarily satiated and then it starts again.” Which begs the question: Who would kill a man like that? Virtually any one of these men.
But it’s up to Underwood to guide us through the shifting maze. “It’s sharing a story with 700 people,” says Underwood, who narrates the play as Davenport’s sleuthing unfolds. “It’s a conversation and it should feel personal.”
Much of that comes down to the strength in Fuller’s writing. “When you read it, you realize why it’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning play,” says O’Connell. “The acting becomes elevated because your base is stronger than any base you work on, ever.”
But the acting is also elevated because of Leon’s grasp on the material and his vision. “Mr. Leon just kept saying to me, ‘Just remember these are people having conversations,’” O’Connell recalls. And so his Taylor presents less like a stereotypical white military man of 1944 and more like an earnest yet clearly fallible man. “I hope every actor reading this, if they have the chance to work with Mr. Leon, [do it]. I will understudy the understudy in a Kenny Leon production.”
Yet, Leon shares credit with the cast who he handpicked for these roles in the play he’s read over and over again.
“I’ve always loved it because it’s a well-structured play,” says Leon. “A good balance of humor and drama and it’s saying something: Unfortunately, we haven’t come as far as I had hoped we would have come.” And Leon drives that home when he closes the show with a Nipsey Hussle track. “You think that’s then? That’s now,” he says.
The cast and creative team hope A Soldier’s Play can help audiences confront these issues and realize solutions. “In the show, it can be seen as Waters and Peterson against each other, and every time when I read it and see it, I wonder, man, what if they just work together?” says Miller. “Because they have similar objectives that they want to uplift and push forward, but they have two different ideas of how to do it.
“If, when people see it, one of the things they get is the power of working together—not in some Pollyanna way that we have to agree on everything—but if our objectives are the same, we both love our people, we just have different ways of going about it, then let’s listen to each other.
“Kenny reminded us constantly: We have to rely on each other. We’re a company of brothers,” says Belcher. There’s a true “I got your back” chemistry in the company. “It’s like real soldiers, actually,” says Jones. Perhaps that can permeate beyond the footlights.