James McDaniel is living proof you can, too, go home again. He just shook the California sand from his shoes and returned to the bosom of New York theatre. What's more — incredibly — he's doing it in the same play that brought him here in the first place 24 years ago: Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play.
Of course, time dictated a few "alterations" for McDaniel — like banishing him to the opposite end of the spectrum: Instead of playing the wide-eyed country-bumpkin who is demeaned for no apparent reason by his sergeant (as he did in the original cast when he took over for the late Larry Riley), he has evolved from victim to victimizer to, ultimately, murder victim.
Basically, it's a whodunit, camouflaged in military khaki and rarely dramatized black-on-black bigotry. Think of it as a Billy Budd-confined-to-barracks — innocence ground asunder by evil. The setting is a segregated boot camp in the Louisiana bayous of 1943, where African Americans are trained for World War II and where their hard-nosed, self-hating Sergeant Waters has turned up murdered. His cruel training methods have produced a platoon of usual suspects, and a spic-and-span captain (also black, much to the chagrin of the Caucasian company commander) is brought in to sort through the clues.
When the Negro Ensemble Company premiered the piece, the emphasis was decidedly on "ensemble," but individual stars emerged from this joint effort — among them Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Brown, Peter Friedman, Eugene Lee, James Pickens Jr., Cotter Smith and Adolph Caesar. Most were aboard for the movie version, which, with a little title-tinkering, became "A Soldier's Story" and earned Oscar nods for Best Picture of 1984, Fuller's screenplay and Caesar's complex portrait of the slain sarge. For the Second Stage revival director Jo Bonney has likewise gone the ensemble route, recruiting an impressive collection of the newly arrived and up-and-coming, including Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie, Teagle F. Bougere, Steve Pasquale and Royce Johnson.
McDaniel was even waved in from the West Coast, having done a long tour of duty on the Steven Bochco police force ("Hill Street Blues," "Cop Rock" and, most memorably, "NYPD Blue"). He, personally, couldn't see it. "I wouldn't have thought of myself for the sergeant," he admits, "but they came to me and they told me that was the role they wanted me to do. Eventually, I went, 'Yeah, it's time. It's really right.' I didn't see it coming at all because, when you go back to an experience like this, you go back to it like you were 24 years ago. That's the way you're thinking of the piece. I understood my role as much as I really needed to, to do my character, but I didn't really understand the substance of the play because I wasn't that old yet. Coming back and rereading it, I find it ever so much more enlightening to me — and I've come to realize what a really good play it actually is."
He feels his current job has been made much easier, after watching — mesmerized — Adolph Caesar in action. "His performance was absolutely magnificent, which is in certain ways a gift and in certain ways a curse. He did not miss a single solitary beat. Things I would not understand at the time, I understand reading through it now. There's a level of work I don't even have to do because the story's been read to me night after night by a master."
Anthony Mackie, who inherited Denzel Washington's role of the platoon hotshot, lacks McDonald's personal history with the play, but he is nevertheless thoroughly familiar with the text, having worked on it enough in scene class. "When the opportunity presented itself, I jumped in whole-heartedly," he confesses. "There are not too many people in my generation who can say they not only worked on a Charles Fuller play but they also worked on a Charles Fuller play with Charles Fuller. It's a huge thing to say."
Steve Pasquale had three reasons for going after the role of the white commanding officer: "One, I have a great relationship with Jo Bonney — we did Fat Pig together, and I knew she would do a terrific job with this piece. Two, Taye Diggs is one of my best friends in the whole world. We were in the same cast of The Wild Party, and we've been on the hunt for something to do together. This seemed like such a perfect chance to go head to head. And three, I've been playing the comic relief on television ['Rescue Me'] for the last few seasons, and I wanted to find something that would be the complete opposite of that."
The centerpiece of the ensemble is Taye Diggs, cast as the army attorney who ultimately solves the mystery. "Actually, I wanted to be a part of this in any capacity — but, yeah, this role resonated with me specifically. I love my character's arc. He comes in, kinda out of nowhere, completely alone, nothing in common with anyone. He knows the least about the entire situation and ends up coming full circle and basically solving the crime. But there's not a happily-ever-after ending. He lets you know he is by no means happy about it because four black men who should be fighting [the war] are not able to. Two are dead, and two are in jail. You leave the play, I think, realizing that a lot of work still needs to be done as far as human beings and race relations are concerned."
Mike Colter, Nelsan Ellis, Joe Forbrich, Michael Genet, Dorian Missick and Joaquín Pérez Campbell complete the ensemble. In all, they're this season's Twelve Angry Men.