The song “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” is perhaps the quintessential representation of America’s enchantment with World War II. It evokes in the imagination parades of heroes going off to defeat the Axis Powers, Rosie the Riveter and that famous photo of the sailor and girl kissing after the war is over. However, when the song plays between scenes in the New African Grove Theatre Company production of A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller, it is more uncomfortable irony. The show plays through March 26 at South Fulton County Arts Center.
Set in 1944, A Soldier’s Play delves into the experiences of black soldiers awaiting orders from President Eisenhower to have a chance at defeating Hitler. In the opening scene, Sergeant Waters (R. Gordon Douglas), a black officer, is killed. The incident sends the town of Fort Neal, Louisiana, and the black soldiers in his company, into a tailspin. Waters’ captain would love to bury the news of the murder to save face, but, much to his chagrin, the Army brings in a black attorney named Captain Davenport (DuJuan “Dap” Paxton) to conduct an investigation. With the local Ku Klux Klan marking their turf with as many black bodies as possible, white soldiers disgusted by the idea of black officers and Waters out of favor with the black soldiers, Davenport’s investigation uncovers more than he is prepared to handle.
The play was originally produced in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York and went on to win the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play is impeccably written and feels a lot like an episodic crime drama. As Davenport interviews each soldier, they are transported back to character-revealing past in encounters with Waters. Fuller writes well-rounded characters and keeps the tension high in this unexpected murder mystery.
Unfortunately, the New African Grove production does not do the script any justice. Though the chemistry among the cast members is good, the actors seemed like they could barely remember their lines. There are issues with enunciation, articulation and inflection throughout the show. The set is simple, but barely used. There are two offices onstage — one to conduct the interviews with white soldiers and one to conduct interviews with black officers, but most of the action takes place in the area in front of the small stage. The lighting does not help to underscore any of the prolific moments in the show and is more a distraction because of the clunky scene transitions.
There are a couple of standout performances by Aaron Goodson, who plays the defiant Captain Peterson, and Reggie Reg, who fuses comedy and sincerity as Corporal Cobb. Director N.L. Starr makes good use of the space by having the actors utilize multiple entrances and the aisles, but none of this is able to elevate the production quality.
It’s a lost opportunity because the historical context of the script still rings true. As the play progresses, it becomes evident that racism killed Sergeant Waters’ spirit long before his physical body perished. He accepts at some point that no matter how many bars are on his uniform, he will always be seen as a “nigger,” a reality that the other black soldiers are not ready to face. This issue persists today as black soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan come home to headlines about high incarceration rates, police brutality and “Stand Your Ground” laws, which disproportionately affect black people.
Fuller’s poignant message in the play gets a bit lost in this rough production. Things get better in the second act, but by then the ball has been fumbled. The team at New African Grove Theatre Company is certainly filling an artistic void for residents in Southwest Atlanta, but this production still needs to find its footing.