In early March 2020, I had a major decision to make. I’d purchased tickets to experience the Broadway revival of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” the critically acclaimed work for which Fuller had received a 1982 Pulitzer Prize and a subsequent 2020 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. With Hollywood heavyweights Blair Underwood, David Alan Grier, Jerry O’Connell, star of Sylvie’s Love and former NFL athlete Nnamdi Asomugha, and a then not as well-known J. Alphonse Nicholson who would go on to star in Katori Hall’s Starz drama P-Valley, the show had a red-hot ensemble and was rumored one not to miss.
My dilemma was late February/early March 2020 was when the COVID, a then novel virus, alarm rang high here in the states and NYC was the nation’s hot spot. So, would I risk not going to the play’s revival, scheduled for its last week on Broadway, or would I risk travelling into ground zero as a highly immunocompromised individual? If you guessed the latter, after a lot of prayer and consideration, you would be right, and I regretted not one moment. “A Soldier’s Play” did not disappoint and neither did the national tour’s Wednesday night press preview here in Philadelphia.
Directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon and boasting a solid cast that includes veteran actor Eugene Lee and headlined by the phenomenal Norm Lewis (Da 5 Bloods, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert), the show is just as magnetizing, raw and passionate – all equally appropriate descriptions for the powerful performances – as former interpretations, including the 1984 big screen adaption “A Soldier’s Story.”
Set on a 1944 Louisiana army base, the play recounts the murder of a Black sergeant (Lee) and follows its narrator, Captain Richard Davenport (Lewis), on his investigative journey to solve the crime while he battles and exposes racial injustices in the camp.
With Lewis as the anchor, the story is revealed in present narrative and flashbacks by a multi-talented 12-member cast that is engaging from start to finish. The heavy topics of racism, colorism, and bigotry – and the casual use of derogatory terms indicative of the subject and time – are offset with stepping routines incorporated into military cadences and the musicality occasionally expressed by the cast – especially standout Sheldon D. Brown.
Brown gives a compelling portrayal of singer/guitar player Private C.J. Memphis that is both lighthearted and heartbreaking and – if Nicholson’s path from the character to the television hit show is any indication – he’s certainly one to keep eyes on.
Running through Sunday, January 29 at the Forrest Theatre, “A Soldier’s Play” is a reflective, timely and relevant work that is still a show not to be missed. Tickets are available now at kimmelcenter.org.
Until next thought, Thomasena