Twelve men star in the new Broadway production of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play. A whodunit set during the ‘40s at a U.S. military fort, the play explores the trauma experienced by the black soldiers in the troupe as they encounter racism within their own ranks and from white officials.
Instead of separating into factions backstage, these dozen actors and their leader, Tony-winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun), have formed an intimate bond to help break down barriers. It would be easy to forgive a cast if they found challenges connecting to each other offstage when topics onstage includes racism, bullying, and murder; but rather than keeping to themselves backstage, allowing tension to build in the silences, they have become a tight-knit unit beyond the footlights.
The company is incredibly supportive of each other—at press day, supporting players arrived early to cheer and support the leads. They hold each other accountable, too (the entire company delivers 20 push-ups every time someone was late to a rehearsal, though it didn’t happen often).
Former NFL star-turned-Broadway performer Nnamdi Asomugha, who plays the proud and willful Private First Class Melvin Peterson, sees a lot of parallels playing on the field and the stage. “There’s an immediacy, and [you] have to be in the moment at all times,” the star says. “You have a group of people coming from all walks of life that are banding together and commit to excellence.”
Amidst the mass tension on stage, Asomugha finds beauty in audiences experiencing a play that examines the racial dynamics of power and fear on display in a surprising way. “There are things we talk about in the play that African-Americans hear in their own circles, but now we’re able to have those conversations on stage. That’s very powerful and vulnerable.”
The star refers to dialogue spoken by Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, played by three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier (The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess), who viciously airs his disdain for black men raised in the American South throughout the play, using slurs and physically abusing those he feels are lesser-than. Waters’ behavior is a catalyst within the play; the sergeant is murdered in the very first scene and he appears through flashbacks as memories of him are recounted during the investigation.
Feeling opposite from his character, Grier stands in awe of this company. The star has appeared in A Soldier’s Play three times. Previously, he’s played the musically talented and quiet C.J. Memphis in the Negro Ensemble Company’s 1981 production and, later, Corporal Cobb, C.J.’s best friend and defender, in the film adaptation A Soldier’s Story.
Thirty years ago, Samuel L. Jackson (who played Private Louis Henson in the NEC Off-Broadway production) took charge backstage, advising on entrances and line deliveries. When asked if Grier felt he was taking on the fatherly role backstage at the American Airlines Theatre, where A Soldier’s Play runs, the Broadway alum said there was no way he could—even if he wanted to. “I’m just trying to keep up with them, really,” Greir says of his co-stars. “We read for a couple of days, but by the time we got on our feet, everyone was pretty much off-book. I don’t recall that ever happening.”
While the performers are at the top of their game, their characters are decidedly more flawed.
Broadway alum Blair Underwood (A Streetcar Named Desire) plays the man in charge of investigating the murder, Captain Richard Davenport. He says his character must confront the reality of his own implicit biases as he interviews suspects, “He jumps to conclusions a lot and looks for confirmation about what he thinks is true, instead of allowing the truth to be seen.”
A Soldier’s Play requires its actors to bear much responsibility given Fuller’s text. Presenting racially-charged material to audiences is no easy feat, but Underwood believes it also places an onus on audiences. “Our job is to present the story. It’s not always about giving the audience the answers, but to activate some kind of thought process and, hopefully, introspection.”
In that frame of mind, the company is inviting people to witness community forming on stage, as they band together to protect their own and fight prejudice, and hoping that audiences take message out into the world.
Director Leon adds that 2020 is an important time to bring this show to audiences on the Main Stem, given the rising tide of outspoken racism in America. He hopes the show will contribute to progress through dialogue. “I’m always looking for what keeps healthy, loving, laughing communities in the world in which I live today,” he says. “I want audiences to find themselves in the now of this great play that focuses on 1944, but is saying everything about now.”
The production marks the first play Leon’s done with an all-male cast, and he’s impressed that the men materialize what he envisions with ease and distinct characterization. “They’re just great human beings,” he says.
While the play is a heavy undertaking, leave it to this cast to find a silver lining. The actors wear military uniforms that add authenticity as well as charm. Jerry O’Connell says when he first put on his ‘40s-style military costume, he couldn’t help but notice that everyone beamed with pride.
“Dressing up as a soldier is really fun,” O’Connell says. “I mean as childish as it sounds, we all look so good. When Underwood first put his cap on, I thought ‘My gosh, that man is dashing!’”
While good looks aren’t everything, they certainly add a bit of levity (and fluttering hearts) to a play that will impact audiences no matter their background.
A Soldier's Play is currently in previews with an opening date set for January 21.