'A Soldier's Play' Makes It To Broadway, Nearly 40 Years After Premiere A Soldier's Play tells the story of a murder in an African American unit of the U.S. Army after World War II. It premiered in 1981 and soon after won a Pulitzer Prize. Now, it's finally on Broadway.
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After 40 Years, 'A Soldier's Play' Finally Marches Onto Broadway

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After 40 Years, 'A Soldier's Play' Finally Marches Onto Broadway

After 40 Years, 'A Soldier's Play' Finally Marches Onto Broadway

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play" is finally on Broadway. It premiered almost 40 years ago to great acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize. But its setting - a segregated Army base after World War II - and its subjects - racism and murder - may have been too much for Broadway back then. Alexandra Starr reports on what has and hasn't changed since the play's first run.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: In 1982, Charles Fuller became just the second African American playwright ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for "A Soldier's Play." The off-Broadway premiere featured actors who would become household names, like Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington. But it still didn't transfer to Broadway. Fuller, who is now 80 years old, wasn't surprised.

CHARLES FULLER: I never thought that it would be on Broadway. At the time the play first came out, it was too close to the time that those things happened.

STARR: The play takes an unflinching look at the brutal history of racism in America in a way that is not often addressed on the Broadway stage. One African American character, Sergeant Vernon Waters, internalizes the discrimination he's experienced. He's from the North, and he torments his black troops, particularly the men from the South.

FULLER: I've run into those kind of people all my life - the people who are not happy about who they are and what they are. He also believes that the way that other people behave is better than the way that black people behave so that what he tries to do is to make you someone that you're not.

STARR: In this production, David Alan Grier plays Sergeant Waters. Here he is ripping into one of his subordinates.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A SOLDIER'S PLAY")

DAVID ALAN GRIER: (As Sergeant Vernon Waters) I'm going outside to wait for you, geechy (ph). And when you come out, I'm going to whoop your black Southern a** - let the whole company watch, too. You need to learn respect, how to talk to your betters.

STARR: Grier credits Fuller with providing clues that help explain the rage his character feels. We learn that Sergeant Waters fought during World War I and won the French Croix de Guerre for valor in combat.

GRIER: So imagine this African American man went to Paris. He went all over Europe fighting and was treated better than he was in America. He believed in the American dream, and yet his heart was broken.

STARR: Grier says the white soldiers on base see him as indistinguishable from his subordinates, and that prods Waters to turn his anger on his men.

GRIER: You know, I often think about, if you put my dialogue intact into a white man or woman's voice, you'd say, well, this is a Klansman. This is a virulent racist. And in fact, he is against his own.

STARR: Most of what we see of Waters is in flashbacks because he's killed at the beginning of the play. An African American military officer, Richard Davenport, played by Blair Underwood, arrives at the base to investigate. The white officer in charge, played by Jerry O'Connell, is not happy.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A SOLDIER'S PLAY")

JERRY O'CONNELL: (As Captain Charles Taylor) You go near that sheriff's office in Tynin in your uniform, carrying a briefcase, looking and sounding white and charging local people, you'll be found just as dead as Sergeant Waters. People around here don't respect the colored.

BLAIR UNDERWOOD: (As Captain Richard Davenport) I know that.

STARR: Davenport pushes back.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A SOLDIER'S PLAY")

UNDERWOOD: (As Captain Richard Davenport) Captain, like it or not, I'm all you've got. I've been ordered to look into Sergeant Waters' death, and I intend to do exactly that.

STARR: In the process, we get to know the eight black soldiers who served under Sergeant Waters. J. Alphonse Nicholson plays C.J. Memphis. Nicholson wasn't born when the play first premiered. He says it's still rare for these issues to be presented by an African American cast on a Broadway stage.

J ALPHONSE NICHOLSON: I feel like I've been part of history - but also having to kind of put it right in our face and realize that not much changed.

STARR: But playwright Charles Fuller says that society at large has changed.

FULLER: The country has gotten better over the years from the '40s to where we are now in 2020. It's a lot better than it used to be.

STARR: Fuller says one reason the play didn't transfer from off-Broadway all those decades back was because some theatergoers weren't ready to hear the play's closing line. Captain Davenport tells a white officer he'd better get used to having black people in charge. That line takes on new meaning after the presidency of Barack Obama. And Charles Fuller, who now lives in Toronto, came to New York for the Broadway premiere.

FULLER: It takes its time on certain things, and the play was one of those things - was wonderful to see on Broadway, but you got to admit that took a long time.

STARR: Charles Fuller is still writing and wondering how his next play will fare.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.

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