Before its Academy Award-nominated film adaptation in 1984 and its Broadway debut in February this year, A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller opened the Mark Taper Forum’s 16th season in 1982. The show was produced in collaboration with the Negro Ensemble Company with a star-studded cast including Adolph Caesar and Denzel Washington. Just months before the Taper’s production, Fuller’s play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, making Fuller the second Black playwright to win the award. The show also won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, as well as three Obie Awards. Despite the play’s success, Fuller “never thought it would be on Broadway.” Forty years later, the play finally had its long-overdue place on the Broadway stage.
A Soldier’s Play is a chilling murder-mystery that explores internalized racism, colorism, and tensions within the Black community. The story is set in 1944 in Fort Neal, Louisiana—a United States Army base—when the military was still segregated. The play centers around the murder of black Sergeant Vernon Waters and the ensuing investigation by a black Army officer, Captain Richard Davenport. Although the original suspects were Klansmen, Captain Davenport later discovers how Waters detested other Black men who conformed to stereotypes and how he projected his own internalized racism onto his men, ultimately leading to the suicide of a fellow soldier and his own demise.
Fuller intended to create “what may be the first Black murder-mystery” play that centered around the Black experience with three-dimensional characters. In a 1982 interview with Center Theatre Group, Fuller noted that,
“In the 60s and early 70s, many Black plays were directed at whites [and] were primarily confrontational pieces whose major concern was to address racism and white-black relationships in the country. Now we are much more concerned with examining ourselves, with looking at our own situations... Addressing white people about racial problems is not our only concern... I also think we’re now seeing [Black] characters who are more complex, ones who have bad qualities as well as good ones.”