“Nothing in this play is what it appears to be,” Actor Eugene Lee says of A Soldier’s Play.
Eugene Lee originated the role of Corporal Bernard Cobb in the play’s original Off-Broadway production in 1981 with the Negro Ensemble Company. Four decades later, Lee returns to A Soldier’s Play as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, starring alongside Broadway legend Norm Lewis and under the direction of Kenny Leon at the Ahmanson Theatre.
A Soldier’s Play is a murder mystery. But as Captain Richard Davenport, played by Lewis, unravels the events of that fateful night, he also unearths the underlying racial tensions of the United States through the lives of a segregated army unit in the Southeast during World War II.
“It deals not only with the murder mystery, but it deals with racism within our country, self-hatred within and among our culture, and the things we don’t like to talk about,” Lewis said.
This is by design of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller, who often wrote about the experience of being Black in the United States with three-dimensional characters and a perspective free from the white gaze.
A Soldier’s Play was first performed at Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum in 1982, starring Denzel Washington and Adolph Caesar. It was also adapted into a film, A Soldier’s Story, in 1984.
In an interview with Center Theatre Group for the original CTG production program, Fuller addressed how he felt many plays of his time did not capture the full picture of the African American experience in the United States. “In the 60s and early 70s many Black plays were directed at [white people],” he said. “They were mainly 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, or even our principal one. We’d never get anything done if that’s all we did.
There are a lot of other things that interest us—Black people who are in love, who have led all sorts of exciting lives, and who have had a fascinating history.”
Both Lewis and Lee feel this production speaks to similar themes today, even 40 years after its premiere and nearly 80 years after it is set.
“[The play’s] truths are still true,” Lee said. “Not much has changed.”
Lee, now 70 years old, has seen the many ways the industry has stayed the same, but also how much it has and will continue to change.
“The opportunity for previously underdeveloped, unheard voices that’s happening on the American stage these days is exciting to me,” Lee said. “Despite the cultural wars that are happening [in] the political area, playwrights’ voices are being heard, the stories are being told. And I think that’s great, I think theatre can save society.”
Lewis himself has broken barriers, becoming the first Black actor to star as The Phantom in the Broadway production of The Phantom of The Opera in 2014.
He hopes to pave a way forward for others to do the same. Offstage, Lewis is a founding member of Black Theatre United, an organization that helps and uplifts Black artists in the theatre industry onstage and off. “I’ve been lucky enough...to play roles that are not specifically African American roles,” he said. “We want more opportunities like that, we’re trying to make a difference within this industry.”
Lewis and Lee hope to encourage more conversations around representation and racial equity through their performances each night.
“[A Soldier’s Play] brings new information to people... and these insights are what’s going to help bridge the gap that exists between cultures in the United States,” Lee said.
Lewis feels the play offers new perspectives to everyone. “[Audiences] will have a better understanding of a culture [they] don’t know about, [and] it gives people who are of the culture, the African American experience, a better look into some of the things that we need to discuss,” he said.