Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s A Soldier’s Play is frequently compelling.
By Kay Kipling
A Soldier’s Play certainly grabs you at the outset, as we see an African-American sergeant (Summer Hill Seven) stagger onto the stage and then hear two loud gunshots that take his life. Fortunately, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s production of Charles H. Fuller’s play manages to sustain our interest during its entire running time, as it tells the story of that World War II sergeant and his men while eventually solving the mystery of his death.
Sgt. Waters is a hard-driving man who deals with racism by always trying to live up to what he believes are white men’s standards. So he’s not pleased when one black platoon at his base in segregated Louisiana turns out to be too Southern for him, i.e., shiftless or buffoonish in their ways. Still, a fellow black who’s attained officer rank (Don Laurin Johnson) and is charged with investigating the case at first suspects, as does the base’s white captain (Robert Mowry), Klan involvement in the murder rather than an “inside” job. And then there are two white officers who fought with Waters the night of his death…
The investigation is complicated, as Fuller presents the subtle and not so subtle ways racism affects the company. And the way we get to know the men of the platoon is subtle, too, as each tells their version of things to the investigator. Ultimately, Waters’ disintegration, well played by Seven, is touching and powerful. As one character says, “Any man who don’t know where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain.” And that’s true if black or white.
There are some slow moments occasionally, and from where I sat, at least, the production’s background music at times made it difficult to concentrate on the dialogue. Some of Don Laurin Johnson’s delivery needs better timing. But the performances by the ensemble cast are generally strong, with Seven, Mowry, and Tommy Carpenter as a white racist officer standing out.
A Soldier’s Play continues through March 1 in a WBTT production at the Historic Asolo Theater. For tickets call 360-7399 or go to ringling.org.