by Hedy Weiss
"A SOLDIER'S PLAY"'
When: Through March 30
Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark
Info: (773) 338-2177; www.raventheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
Although African-American soldiers fought in every major conflagration in which this country has been involved -- from the Revolutionary War onward -- segregation was officially sanctioned until July, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order that integrated the military and mandated equality of treatment.
"A Soldier's Play," Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama -- now in a bristling Raven Theatre revival under the muscular direction of Michael Menendian -- is set in 1944. And even as a unit of black soldiers prepares to be shipped overseas to fight and die in World War II, the racism is deep, pervasive and hugely destructive.
It does not help that the United States Army base here is in Fort Neal, Louisiana, full-fledged Klan country., though the Klan, as it turns out, is the red herring here. THAT kind of racism is a given.
What Fuller (who served in the Army, and fought in both Japan and Korea), explores in this play is the tragically warping effect of racism on black soldiers, especially those few who have risen in the ranks and are forever being scrutinized, judged, pressured and second-guessed.
Capt. Richard Davenport (Frank Pete), a rare black officer, has been summoned to Fort Neal to investigate the shooting murder of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Antoine Pierre Whitfield), another black man whose treatment of his men was more fierce and punishing than any white man could have doled out. Filled with twisted self-hatred, and hellbent on separating himself from what he says are "the lazy, shiftless Negroes" who bring men like him down, he has driven one young man to suicide, yanked the hard-won stripes from another, and humiliated the rest.
Any one of those men might have had cause to strike back at Waters. And blaming the Klan, a natural enemy, could have repercussions in the surrounding community. Davenport, the ultimate professional, is determined to go wherever the case leads. And unlike Waters, he has an unshakeable sense of self, and even grudgingly wins the respect of Corporal Ellis (Carthy Dixon), the white officer who bluntly informs Davenport what he thinks of black officers.
Told in a series of revealing flashbacks, we meet all the men under Waters' command -- guys who also happen to form a solid Negro baseball team. They include: Private James Wilkie (Bradford Stevens), the family man determined to get his rank back; Melvin Peterson (Eric Walker), who has the guts to talk back to Waters; C. J. Memphis (Brian Keys), the young country boy and blues guitarist who Waters both loves and despises; the quiet but questioning Private Tony Smalls (Kory Pullam); and the more laid-back guys played by Tamarus Harvell and Rashawn Thompson. Two white soldiers (played by Scott Allen Luke and Tim Walsh), add to the atmosphere of hate.
The performances are uniformly strong and distinctive. And Andrei Onegin's angular set design -- military spare and subtly dangerous -- provided the ideal backdrop for this unsparing look at the self-devouring aspects of racism.