Encounter With 'A Soldier's Story'

Army sergeant Vernon Waters from A Soldier's Story is a complicated character. He's a murderer. And he's obsessed with protecting the dignity — and future — of the African-American race.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Army Sergeant Vernon Waters is not a nice man. He's a murderer, a destroyer of lives. He's obsessed with protecting what he sees is the dignity and future of the African-American race. As Waters taunts one black soldier he had arrested:

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Mr. ADOLPH CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) Now I've got you. One less fool for the race to be ashamed of.

SIMON: Waters is the nexus of Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play." The 1981 stage version was made into a movie three years later. It starred Adolph Caesar as Waters alongside Howard E. Rollins Jr. and a young Denzel Washington. As part of our series, In Character, NPR's Allison Keyes looks at what makes Sgt. Vernon Waters tick.

ALLISON KEYES: The movie opens with Waters on his knees, drunk, sweaty, full of despair. His face contorts. He's twisted by failure, raging at an unseen assailant.

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) They still hate you.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

KEYES: Waters pitches over backwards and dies. The story follows the army's investigation into his murder on a Louisiana army base. It is World War II, 1944, and the army is still segregated.

Mr. CHARLES FULLER (Author, "A Soldier's Play"): I think looking at Waters we need to understand him in terms of where he comes from and the kind of philosophy and attitude that permeated his time.

KEYES: Charles Fuller wrote "A Soldier's Play" and the screenplay for the movie.

Mr. FULLER: Sgt. Waters was no different than a whole of people that lived at that time that Sgt. Waters lived. He is not an anomaly. He isn't odd. He's a very regular guy.

KEYES: But Waters had serious issues with the other black soldiers and they with him, as in this scene between Adolph Caesar as Waters and Denzel Washington as Private First Class Melvin Peterson.

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Pfc. Peterson) And what kind of colored man are you?

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) I'm a soldier, Peterson. And the kind of colored man that don't like lazy, shiftless Negros.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Pfc. Peterson) Well, sir, you ain't got to come in here calling us names.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) The Nazis called you Shvartza(ph). You gonna complain to Hitler he hurt your little feelings?

KEYES: Most of the black soldiers and the white officers assume Waters was killed by a white man, perhaps one from the Ku Klux Klan. Two white officers encountered Waters on his drunken walk the night he was killed. Their confrontation illuminates some of the why's behind Waters' tortured existence.

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Unidentified Actor: You come to attention right now and that is an order.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) I enjoy nothing white folks say or do.

KEYES: One of the white officers raises his fist to attack Waters and tells him...

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Unidentified Actor: Now you do it, now.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) Look what he's done to me. I hate myself.

Mr. FULLER: What happens to a person who has their dreams crushed unfairly? What happens to a person that tries so, so hard to please?

KEYES: Actor James McDaniel played Sgt. Waters in a 2005 revival of the play and says Waters' past and how he reacts to it is the essence of the character.

Mr. JAMES MCDANIEL (Actor): What is the cancer that grows inside that person? What does it do to them? Is that fair? Is it right? Is it avoidable?

Mr. FULLER: He got the (unintelligible) for bravery in the First World War.

KEYES: Playwright Charles Fuller.

Mr. FULLER: He came back to an army that treated him like a dog, and he believed that one way to obviate this treatment was by getting an education, by doing the kinds of things that people told us to do in this country.

KEYES: McDaniel says the experience after World War I deeply affected Waters, a man who had already been taught by his father that the way to escape poverty and prejudice was to emulate whites.

Mr. MCDANIEL: He wanted through excellence of service, dignity and nobility and all those types of things to elevate his people in the hopes that someday himself and his children would be able to live in a world where they will be judged by the content of the character. What that did is it that made him have great disdain for people that actually just wanted to live their lives.

KEYES: Sgt. Waters took that disdain to a deadly level with Private CJ Memphis.

(Soundbite of film "A Soldier's Story")

Mr. LARRY RILEY: (As CJ Memphis) (Singing) Well, it's a lowdown, lowdown dirty shame.

KEYES: CJ is a Mississippi born, baseball protege and musician whose easy-going manner, country dialect and mother wit inspires Waters' hatred.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) Whatever an ignorant, low-class geechy(ph) like you has to say ain't worth paying attention to, is it? Is it?

Mr. RILEY: (As CJ Memphis) I recognize, sir.

KEYES: McDaniel played CJ at the original 1981 stage production and says Waters despised CJ and set out to destroy him.

Mr. MCDANIEL: Sgt. Waters had chosen him, I think, because he was so relaxed with himself and who he was, which was, you know, basically the opposite of what Waters was, which made him loath CJ even more.

KEYES: Waters tricks CJ into striking an officer, then has CJ imprisoned in the stockade.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) Today the geechy(ph) is gone, boy, and you're going with him. We can't let nobody go on believing we all fools like you. Waited a long time for you, boy, but I got you. I put two geechies(ph)in jail in Campbell, Kentucky, three in Fort Wachuka. Now I got you. One less fool for the race to be ashamed of.

KEYES: CJ hangs himself and Waters begins deteriorating, acting strangely and drinking heavily. The audience learns that it is a black man, Private Peterson, who actually kills Waters. Waters admits causing CJ's death but tells Peterson...

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) (Crying) It doesn't make any difference. They still hate you.

KEYES: Peterson's face hardens and he cocks his 45 as he (unintelligible) to his cowardly accomplice, Private Tony Smalls.

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Pfc. Peterson) Justice, Smalls, it's for CJ. Everybody.

Mr. CAESAR: (As Sgt. Waters) (Crying) He still hates you.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

KEYES: Fuller says Waters belatedly realized that all of his cow-tailing to whites and mistreatment and weeding out of what he considered to be inferior blacks meant nothing.

Mr. FULLER: No matter what you do, no matter how you do it, no matter how often you stand in on their side, they still hate you. And the people that hate you, in Sgt. Waters' mind, are white people.

KEYES: Fuller says he still gets guff from black audiences furious because Peterson is arrested for Waters' murder. They railed that Waters deserved to die, but Fuller loves that.

Mr. FULLER: I don't know any character that I can think of in black literature that has created that kind of impact...

KEYES: And animosity.

Mr. FULLER: Yeah, and that kind of animosity. Sgt. Waters - I don't think anybody likes him.

KEYES: James McDaniel says he has empathy for Waters, that he could have been a man like Waters. McDaniel says everyone knows someone who hates a part of themselves. He also thank some black people today, like Waters, are similarly torn between trying to emulate whites and being themselves. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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