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Free Reign Theatre’s ‘A Soldier’s Play’ Recalls the Brink of a New Era

A Black man in a baseball uniform plays guitar onstage for two men in military uniforms in Free Reign Theatre's production of 'A Soldier's Play.'
Dominic Weaver as CJ Memphis on the guitar in Free Reign Theatre’s production of ‘A Soldier’s Play.’ (Photo by Robin Neville)

The effects of segregation, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan choke the atmosphere surrounding Fort Neal, a fictitious 1944 military base in Louisiana and setting of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play. Yet there are beacons of hope, personified by the Black privates, the corporals — even the busted sergeant we see in a humble barracks.

Blumenthal Broadway Lights subscribers saw a deluxe revival of this 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner at Knight Theater back in January, and the current Free Reign Theatre reprise down in Rock Hill — not Rural Hill, which was Free Reign’s HQ last summer — only reaffirms the script’s stature as a classic. The Free Reign run picks back up on Thursday, Aug. 31 for its final weekend

Fuller captures these Black military men on the brink. Any day now, these eager recruits are hoping to be deployed across the Atlantic, where they can prove themselves on the battlefield fighting the Nazis. On the home front, we learn that this platoon of baseball players, culled from the Negro Leagues, has a chance to play the New York Yankees if their team can maintain its undefeated record through the rest of the season.

Not a far-fetched dream! Just three seasons into the future, Jackie Robinson will make his breakthrough MLB debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, win Rookie of the Year honors, pop champagne with his white teammates as he celebrates his first National League pennant, and become the first Black athlete to play in the World Series — against the New York Yankees.

Fuller accurately fine-tunes his soldiers’ aspirations, but he drops a bombshell into this Deep South outpost that is equally shocking to the Black scrubs and the white officers on base. When the ballclub’s manager, Tech Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, is murdered in the middle of the night, presumably by local racists, the feds in D.C. send Captain Richard Davenport to investigate.

D.C. or not Deep South, Davenport is a Black lawyer. How is he going to be able to point a finger at a gang of KKK knights, dragons, or wizards and proclaim “Arrest these men!” within the borders of Louisiana? It’s as if a D.C. think tank had come up with the surest way for Waters’ murderers not to be prosecuted for their crime.

Two white men stand yelling over a desk while Capt. Davenport stands nearby keeping his cool in Free Reign Thatre's production of A Soldier's Play
Jonavan Adams as Capt. Richard Davenport (far left), whose arrival makes waves among white underlings. (Photo by Robin Neville)

So it’s extra neat that the current Free Reign Theatre production is being staged upstairs at the Gettys Center, where James Duke’s scenery mostly conceals the imposing paneling of the old second-story courtroom. What remains to be seen, up near the high ceiling, adds to the G-Man aura of Jonavan Adams as he enters the fort in the role of Capt. Davenport, sporting a cool pair of General MacArthur sunglasses.

Nobody on base has ever seen a Black man like this before. Captain Charles Taylor, Waters’ former commanding officer, admits his discomfort in accepting Davenport as an equal. He’s also a bit flustered by the stranger’s cool and orders him to remove those glasses, forgetting that Davenport outranks him. Adams enjoys his teaching moment with a nice nonchalance as Tim Huffman seethes, finely calibrating Taylor’s redneck tendencies with his West Point pedigree.

Whether or not they can sense the Robinson breakthrough on the horizon — or grasp the MLK dream 19 years before he proclaims it — the Black ballplaying soldiers also show a learning curve in dealing with Davenport’s intelligence, competence, professionalism and objectivity. Flustered, flummoxed or wary, the corporals and privates quickly show that they are no less thrown by this Davenport phenomenon than Taylor.

Jonavan Adams as Capt. Richard Davenport and Tim Huffman as Capt. Charles Taylor (standing, from left) in Free Reign Theatre’s ‘A Soldier’s Play.’ (Photo by Robin Neville)

And of course, they share Taylor’s skepticism about Davenport’s ability to charge a KKK-grade racist with any crime in Louisiana and make it stick.

Everybody, then, is taken aback as Davenport ignores race altogether, seeking to interrogate both Black soldiers and white officers in search of the facts, and allowing those facts — rather than easy presumptions — to lead him to the truth. Only the busted sergeant, Andrew Roberts as Private James Wilkie, seems to realize that Davenport is seeking evidence to form his opinion of who the murderer or murderers might be rather than simply bolstering the opinion he already had.

Davenport is paying attention when Wilkie upsets the KKK hypothesis with a telling observation that Fuller cleverly assigns to the one man at Fort Neal who has lost his stripes. Roberts gives us a messy mix of servility and seething resentment as Wilkie’s complex layers unfold. It was Waters, after all, who busted Wilkie, so the former sergeant will become a prime suspect the instant the Klan is cleared of suspicion.

Not only does Wilkie open the door to new possibilities of viewing Waters’ murder, he also opens a window into the deep tensions that lurk beneath the graceful, flawless façade of the invincible team. In flashbacks triggered by Davenport’s ongoing interrogations, we soon see that Waters’ mix of servility and resentment was far more toxic than his subordinate’s.

Justin Peoples as Tech Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (left) and Dominic Weaver as CJ Memphis. (Photo by Robin Neville)

An unforgettable debasement of a Black man at the hands of white officers that Waters witnessed in France during World War I ignited a lifelong secret crusade against the “Geechies” that he despises — Southerners whom he sees as tarnishing the image of his race and hampering their progress.

It is an absolute mania, and even the best player on the team, Private CJ Memphis, does not escape Waters’ lethal prejudice. The chin-to-chin confrontation between Justin Peoples as Waters and Dominic Weaver as Memphis, modeled after the Claggart-Budd climax in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman, is more electric than any of the Davenport-Taylor faceoffs.

In the sequel to the Waters-Memphis climax in the barracks, a jailhouse stunner where Waters berates and gloats over his latest victim, Memphis achieves a tragic stature when Weaver proceeds to channel Billy Budd’s Christ-like attributes.

Under Dr. Corlis Hayes’ beautifully judged direction, the deep Billy Budd conflict regains its dominance over the Davenport-Taylor sparring. The touring production, unlike the previous New York productions and the 1984 film adaptation, tilted our attention away from Waters toward Broadway star Norm Lewis, who took over the Davenport role on the road. Yet we still see quite vividly that the new man on base is the future.

Shining more light upon Waters’ diabolical obsession, Hayes and Peoples let us see that, in some ways, A Soldier’s Play is like a Perry Mason mystery. So many soldiers on his team detest Waters that almost every one is a legitimate suspect. Davenport’s main weapon is cross-examination — in Captain Taylor’s office, his own hastily-outfitted domain, or in front of the soldiers’ bunk beds and foot lockers.

Weaver’s performance as CJ, like a genial Willie Mays with a guitar, further focuses on the enormity of Waters’ crime. Memphis isn’t the only player who has tangled with his racist tech sergeant. PFC Melvin Peterson, a Northerner like Waters, is more offended than anyone by the sergeant’s bigotry, and Devin Clark, who shone so brightly as Brutus in Free Reign’s Julius Caesar last year, is more than up to capturing Peterson’s rage, which leads to a fight with Waters. His antagonism lingers on, flaring up again when CJ is baited by Waters and jailed.

Suspects abound, in the barracks and among the white officers. As Lieutenant Byrd, David Hensley’s defiance and antagonism toward Davenport, when he has the effrontery to question him, nicely contrasts with Hugh Loomis’ subdued pragmatism as Captain Wilcox, who realizes that his pal’s hot-headedness may have already landed them both in hot water.

Hayes also has a welcome urge to expand the light and relaxed interludes Fuller built into his play, importing blues singer Big Mary from Fuller’s screen adaption and offering Shar Marlin a chance to give us a sassy respite from the all-male action with her cameo. A nice touch.

A woman sits on a stool onstage singing while a man next to her strums the guitar
Shar Marlin as Big Mary (right) offers a musical respite in Free Reign Theatre’s ‘A Soldier’s Play.’ (Photo by Robin Neville)

Having seen numerous Jackie Robinson biopics and dramas over the years, we can see some pragmatism in Waters’ disciplined philosophy to the extent that it mirrors the template that the future Hall of Fame second baseman fit into when he made his debut on the big MLB stage — supplemented by some pointed advice.

Waters keeps his feelings bottled up in the company of superior officers, eradicates rusticity and superstition from his actions and speech, maintains a sober low profile, and waits patiently for these quiet concessions to win him favor and advance his career.

There’s a constant tension between that approach and the tacks taken by Memphis and Peterson. Memphis likes being liked, displaying his talents, being himself, and letting his natural gifts take him where they may. Even if he does lack education and polish, Memphis is respectful, outgoing, and good, though we have to factor in the large portions of female adoration he attracts.

Clark gets to be more pugnacious and far more fiercely intelligent, despising bigotry in any form, even if it comes from Waters, a superior whose orders he should obey. He will stand up strong for his beliefs at all times, even if it means taking a licking.

But the real deal, Jackie-wise, is Davenport. Adams amalgamates all the best of Waters’ calculated patience and Peterson’s egalitarian principles, with the ability to turn on some of CJ’s natural charm. Before the soldiers have shipped off to Europe, eager to prove themselves in World War II’s European theater, Davenport is a fully-evolved marvel that people in Louisiana readily recognize and value.

As we saw in the spit-and-polish version presented at Knight Theater, Adams also chafes a little at the relentless saluting and military barking that comes from Hayes’ drilling, aided by two military consultants who keep all the soldiers coming to attention. 

After much seasoning and resourceful survival, Davenport arrives fully polished, ready for primetime and postwar America. He may not have the fire of Malcolm X or the towering eloquence of MLK, but we can imagine Davenport as a worthy ally for either of those pathfinders.

Free Reign Theatre’s run of A Soldier’s Play wraps up this weekend with shows from Aug. 31-Sept. 3.

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