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A murder mystery lives on the misdirected expectations and presumptions of its audience. In the best of the genre, the onlookers should be surprised not only by the identity of the murderer, but by what they learn about their own preconceptions. Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winner, A Soldier's Play, currently receiving an engrossing production at the Ensemble Theatre, provides these layers of discovery, and yet one more: a miniature society learning the best and the worst about itself.
Set on a Louisiana Army base in 1944, the play recounts the military investigation of the murder of a black non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Sterling Vappie), the commander of a non-combatant company of black soldiers. Waters' death is portrayed in the play's first moments; he is shot while defying his unidentified assailant with his final words, "They still hate you!" The small but eventually revelatory clue offered by Waters' final outcry also rings with the playwright's central theme: the persistence and variety of hatreds among this group of American soldiers, presumably comrades-in-arms.
The military's immediate suspicion is the obvious one, that Waters must have been a victim of local Klansmen, enraged by the presence of uniformed black soldiers in their midst. Wartime racial lynchings were not an uncommon occurrence in the South. Other likely suspects are a couple of white officers who fought with Waters on the same evening.
But the Army proves less interested in solving the murder than in preventing any violent reaction on the part of the black soldiers. After a half-hearted investigation, the commanding officers respond to continuing pressure from one white officer, Captain Taylor (Ed Muth), by appointing an outside investigator, Captain Davenport (Lee Stansberry). But Davenport is also black, and without direct authority even to interrogate white soldiers, let alone white civilians. The condescending Taylor presumes that Davenport's appointment is simply one more cynical attempt to bury the investigation.
It may well be, and part of the evening's pleasure is watching Davenport, despite the limitations of official segregation, upend the Army's expectations by inexorably drawing closer to the murderer. But even for an audience alert to the eventual outcome, the larger resonance of Fuller's script is in watching the playwright precisely set forth the grotesque consequences of American racism, magnified by the rigid authoritarianism of the military.
As pictured largely in the well-framed flashbacks instigated by Davenport's investigation, every character in A Soldier's Play -- white and black -- is to some degree colorstruck, but the most psychologically damaged by racism is the dead black officer, Sergeant Waters. Desperate to uplift his race in defiance of the white man, he has thoroughly internalized racist standards of manhood, respectability, discipline, even color. By those standards, and all in the name of an imagined racial dignity, he ruthlessly abuses the black men in his charge. The most clear-eyed judgment of Waters' spiritual predicament is pronounced by the dark-skinned soldier he most abuses as an "ignorant no-class geechee," C.J. Memphis (Michael Ballard): "Any man ain't sure where he belongs must be in a lot of pain."
Waters' brutality, as well as his pain, reverberates throughout the group of soldiers stationed at Fort Neal. The black soldiers, nominally a smoke-generating company, have been brought together primarily for their athletic prowess in the Negro baseball leagues, sustaining the Army's hope of staging an exhibition game against the barnstorming Yankees. Waters fought in World War I, but is now less an officer than a baseball manager, and like his men he yearns fiercely for the opportunity to prove himself in combat. Emotionally corrupted by misguided notions of racial pride, he is determined to suppress any evidence of stereotypical "ignorant Negroes" in his command. The blues-singing C.J. is his main target, but all the black soldiers feel his misdirected, murderous rage. As Captain Davenport will discover, racism kills indeed, but in many and various ways.
When the Ensemble first staged A Soldier's Play ten years ago, artistic director Eileen Morris was managing director, and her husband (and Alley company member) Alex Allen Morris gave his first professional performance. They co-direct this revival production with an admirable concentration, handling the play's shifting time frames with clarity and precision, aided by the effective stage and lighting design of Winifred Sowell and Jeffrey Salzberg.
The generally strong performances are led by Sterling Vappie's Sergeant Waters, who embodies such contradictions of heroic pride and self-hatred that he becomes finally a figure of tragedy. Lee Stansberry is also strong as Captain Davenport, the black lawyer seizing the challenge of a murder investigation that at first appears both hopeless and demeaning.
Among the supporting players, the standout performances include Byron Jacquet as Private Wilkie, gamely defending Waters despite the abuse he receives at his hands; Michael Washington as the skeptical Private Henson, with little use for military pretensions, black or white; J.D. Hawk as Private Peterson, proudly defiant and therefore a particular target of Waters' tyranny; and MIchael Ballard as C.J. Memphis, the country-boy center fielder and guitar player at a loss in the Army, where vengeance is reflexive and punishment incomprehensible.
In Fuller's staged gray world at war, as in its model, the innocent perish along with the guilty. When this production of A Soldier's Play finishes its work, the murderer may have been apprehended, but where the guilt lies remains uncertain. To borrow the victim's bitter words, this not a story about "just another black mess of cutting and slashing and burning." It's a searing examination of what we have all been driven to, by "the madness of race in America."
A Soldier's Play will run through June 26 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, 520-0055.
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