A Soldier's Play
Written by Charles Fuller
Directed by Timothy Benston
At the Agassiz Theater
DIRECTOR Timothy Benston reinstated the draft and transformed 12 ordinary Harvard students into enlisted men when the group appeared in Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play at the Agassiz Theatre last weekend.
The play, which is set on a Southern Army base during World War II centers around the continuing struggle of a Black officer, Captain Richard Davenport, to receive the respect that his rank deserves, and the lost struggle of another Black officer, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, who failed to maintain his dignity as a man or as a soldier. The plot consists of Davenport's investigation of Waters' murder and the added tensions it imposes upon the all Black company of army soldiers and their white commanding officers.
Benston and cast do a fine job in portraying the hardships of Black soldiers on the stage. The frequent use of a single white spot on a stark black background successfully heightens the conflict between the Blacks and whites on stage.
Kenneth Johnson, who brillantly plays the sergeant, is one of the major highlights of the show. Johnson begins the show by crying out "They still hate you. They still hate you," as he dies slowly. Immediately Johnson expresses to the audience the torment of Waters' life and the wide wedge of racism which has torn apart his life. Fortunately, the play's frequent use of flashbacks allows Johnson to reappear onstage a great deal.
Waters is a complex character and Johnson skillfully handles all the facets of Waters' personality. The sharp, biting tone Johnson uses when speaking to his men reverberates effectively through the theater and convinces the audience that Waters is completely insensitive and entirely too demanding. When a higher ranking white officer forces Waters to buckle under Johnson shows Waters' softer side. Johnson's on-target facial expressions convey Waters' feelings of pain and humiliation to the audience.
Eric Dandridge does a good job in the role of Davenport, but there is room for improvement. In the scenes where Davenport faces Captain Taylor, a white officer, there are definite traces of racial tension as Taylor comes to grips with the Black man who is his equal. Although Dandridge plays Davenport as witty and almost stern, at times during these conflicts with Taylor he misses the mark by not giving Davenport the attitude of a fighter. Dandridge also does not succeed in strongly portraying the anguish Davenport must experience as he struggles to maintain the dignity of his stripes.
Rufus Jones makes a decent attempt at the role of C.J. Memphis, a character who seems to be an Uncle Tom. Everyone in the company likes Memphis except Waters. Jones gives a comic performance as Memphis, who is from the deep South, for the totally naive and acquiescent creature that he is. Jones' last scene, in the MP jailhouse, when the crazed Memphis feels he is at the end of his rope, is particularly moving. A large part of the role involves singing and although Jones has a nice voice it lacks the bluesy quality that the songs require.
Overall Benston and cast make the audience stand up and salute their performance. Despite some minor defects, this version of A Soldier's Play is a major piece of entertainment.