Reviewed by Chad T. Volkers
A Soldier’s Play was alright. I’ve stressed and strained over the past week trying to move beyond that perspective, convinced that I’d perhaps missed something that the gentleman who sat in front of me had picked up on, the one who’d thought the play was “wonderful, just wonderful.” He said this in the lobby after, cheerfully grabbing an hors d’oeuvres sized brat off the table and nodding his head in a rhythmic, smiling response to anyone else who might come along to murmur in assent to the inherent “good”ness of the play. There was a conviction in him that my own response seemed to lack and so I kept trying and trying and trying to pull the thread out that might allow me to crack this particular case. However, here I am, a week later, Denzel Washington’s wiki bio a bit fresher in my memory (Denzel was in the first staging of the play, playing PFC Peterson)(incidentally, Samuel L. Jackson was also in that ensemble, which for a brief glimmering moment seemed like the right rabbit hole to fall down before I remembered I’m white and 23 and therefore probably not the best qualified to pontificate on black character archetypes) and yet still I can’t manufacture anything beyond “eh, it was ok.”
The play begins with Sarg. Waters (played here by Antoine Whitfield, one of two standouts, the other being Nick Bailey who appears here as Lieut. Byrd, a white soldier who has a run-in with Waters earlier in the night of his subsequent murder, who also shines in his limited time on stage) shot to death while shouting the enigmatic last words “THEY STILL HATE YOU.” The play quickly moves to bring in Capt. Richard Davenport (Frank Peter) as one of the few African-American lawyers in the armed services to investigate, and what follows is a collection of the vignettes and anecdotes served up by the enlisted men during their respective interviews. Director Michael Menendian does a fine job taking advantage of the fairly large space available (and the malleable, well-constructed set from Andrei Onegin) to allow the characters to move fluidly between the interview with Davenport and the remembered encounter(s) with Waters to gradually create a portrait of Waters as a vile, vindictive man who has absorbed the racist attitudes of his superior officers and subsequently treats the black men serving beneath him with even greater cruelty than the white soldiers and officers they encounter. While this storytelling mechanism can at times be problematic and unrealistic (Wouldn’t Davenport have been fully appraised of the prior shooting involving the soldiers from the start?) but it generally works to at least maintain a sense of energy and purpose when the interview sections start to flag.
I think ultimately what does the play in is its own sense of its importance. This is a play about THE BIG ISSUES, after all, and it spends so much of its time reminding you of that that it can forget we are ostensibly dealing with human beings who can represent more than one facet of a given ISSUE. Under the weight of this, Tim Walsh’s performance as Capt. Taylor suffers especially (Is he supposed to be comic relief or run sinister interference on the investigation?) but Frank Pete’s Capt. Davenport can also feel like he’s primarily there to give clumsy exposition. Combining this with the already shout-y tendencies of the play crushes much of what is supposed to be the underlying tension and nuance.
2.4 GPA on a 4.0 scale.
Runs Feb. 12-March 30
Directed by Michael Menendian
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark