Thursday, February 9, 2023

Broadway at the Ordway: Tour of "A Soldier's Play" at the Fitzgerald Theater

The intense drama A Soldier's Play comes to St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater as part of The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts' "Broadway @ the Ordway" series. The 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama debuted on Broadway in January 2020 for a pandemic-shortened two-month run, but the good news is that this Roundabout Theatre Company production, helmed by acclaimed director Kenny Leon, is on tour across America. Thanks to the Ordway for bringing us this powerful and important piece, and for staging it at the Fitz, a more intimate space for a story like this, that might have gotten lost in a larger space like the Ordway's main theater. An excellent cast lead by Tony nominee Norm Lewis brings out all of the nuance in this layered script, and even though the opening night performance started 45 minutes late due to load-in delays (all other performances should start on time), it was worth the wait. Only six performances remain, click here for tickets.

It's World War II, just before the US joins the war. A battalion of Black soldiers on an Army base in the rural South is dealing with not just the impending war (about which they're actually kind of excited), but also the threat of lynching and violence from the local Klan and other racists. When a Black Sergeant is murdered, the assumption is that it's the Klan, but Captain Taylor (who's White) calls for an investigation, because he believes there's something else going on, potentially from within the ranks. He's disappointed when the powers that be send in Captain Davenport, the first Black officer Taylor has ever seen, because he thinks that it'll be more difficult for a Black investigator to command respect and cooperation in the pursuit of justice for the murdered soldier (he's not wrong, but that doesn't mean it's not racist). Determined, Davenport conducts interviews with several of the enlisted men, and finds out that the murdered Waters was not well liked, and it seems several people had motive to kill him. We see in flashbacks that Waters treated his fellow Black soldiers poorly, and had an idea of what and how Black men should be, and that certain kinds of "Negros" were a shame on the race, i.e., made him look bad. Davenport eventually gets to the truth of what happened on this Army base, but that doesn't change the fact that several soldiers are dead or imprisoned. There's really no happy ending here.

photo by Joan Marcus
I was lucky enough to see Norm Lewis in his Tony-nominated performance as Porgy in The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess 11 years ago, and he's just as wonderful here in this dramatic non-musical role. Well, mostly non-musical; this production beautifully uses period songs, with the cast gorgeously singing a capella, mostly between scenes, and we get to hear Norm's lovely voice as well. His Davenport is strong and confident, determined to find the truth but dismayed when he finds it. Eugene Lee is appropriately unlikable as Waters, but it's complicated. Waters is also living and working in a racist system, and trying to survive in the only way he knows how, even if it's to push others down so that he can succeed. William Connell is strong as the White officer, also a complicated role because even though he has biases, he wants justice for his murdered Black soldier, and in the end respects Davenport for the job he does. The entire ensemble of soldiers is wonderful, especially Sheldon D. Brown as the sweet guitar-playing C.J., who may not be as simple as he seems.

Although apparently difficult to set up, the two-level rustic wooden set is starkly beautiful and effective. When in the barracks, we see the neat sparse Army beds, which are slid back under the set, with sliding wooden panels to provide a backdrop for the various offices where interviews are conducted. There's a lot of jumping around in time and space, as much of the story is told in flashback, but it's all clearly and smoothly told thanks to director Kenny Leon. The cast is dressed in authentic 1940s uniforms, from fatigues and baseball uniforms to the formal suits and hats for the officers (set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite).

A Soldier's Play brings light to the fact that there were Black soldiers who fought in WWII (and other more recent wars), and then came home to the country they sacrificed for, which didn't allow them to get a job, or buy a house, or go to certain schools. It also shows how the oppressed can take on the beliefs of their oppressors in order to survive in an unjust world. At the end of the play, the beds and the backdrop are draped in the American flag, because this is our country, in 1944, in 1982, and today.

Another great choice for Black History Month that highlights our shared American history, see A Soldier's Play at the Fitzgerald Theater (which is a great venue for theater) in downtown St. Paul through this Sunday only. (For more theatrical celebrations of Black History Month, see Theater Latte Da's racially diverse Hello Dolly! and the Guthrie's Harlem-set Blues for an Alabama Sky.)

photo by Joan Marcus


Join me and my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for a special event at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres! Get $20 off the ticket price for the March 4 matinee performance of the regional premiere of the super fun and heart-warming musical THE PROM, and stick around after the show for a talk-back with some of the cast. Find more info in the Facebook event here, and purchase discount tickets using code TCTB1 or by clicking on this link (discount valid for March 4 1pm performance only).