Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon may seem to have the Midas touch but he’d probably admit that his meteoric rise to success has been significantly helped due to the quality of plays that he’s successfully tackled.
Who can refute the stellar musings of William Shakespeare, Lorraine Hansberry and now, Charles Fuller — the playwright whose Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “A Soldier’s Play,” has finally received its just due — appearing on Broadway for the first time after its premiere in 1981?
Now on stage at the Roundabout Theatre Company through March 15 as part of one of its most diverse and dynamic seasons ever, the production features David Alan Grier, Blair Underwood, Nnamdi Asomugha and Jerry O’Connell along with an equally talented supporting cast. And it’s a production that moves from beginning to end — drawing the audience in with sudden emotional jolts and penetrating performances given by Grier and Underwood.
The story takes place in 1944 when a Black sergeant’s murder on a Louisiana Army base brings another Black officer, clearly facing the obstacles of segregation and racism, to investigate the crime. Many in the audience may have known the backdrop and the outcome of the work, given its popularity, 1984 film version, adapted by Fuller for the screen, that earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Film & Best Screenplay.
But the play’s the thing and in this case — it most certainly is.
When “A Soldier’s Play” premiered off-Broadway in 1981 at the Negro Ensemble Company, it starred Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Larry B. Riley, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Friedman and Charles Brown. That’s an irrefutable collection of talented actors.
But in the Roundabout Theatre’s production, the cast is equally, if not even more, adroit in their thespian artistry.
Titillating Tidbits About the Cast and Director
Grier (Sergeant Vernon C. Waters) has a long history with “A Soldier’s Play,” having joined the Negro Ensemble Company production in the early 80’s and then playing “Corporal Cobb” in the film adaptation. He made his Broadway debut playing Jackie Robinson in “The First” (1981) and was most recently on stage in “The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess” (2012).
Underwood (Captain Richard Davenport), an Emmy and Grammy Award winner, has been nominated for 17 NAACP Image Awards (with seven wins) and made his Broadway debut in 2012 as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Asomugha (Private First Class Melvin Peterson), a former NFL star, made his New York stage debut last fall at the Vineyard Theater. This serves as his Broadway debut and he scores in the challenging task of portraying the role originated by Denzel Washington.
O’Connell’s (Captain Charles Taylor) career spans over 30 years, starting with his starring role in “Stand by Me” in 1986. He made his Broadway debut in “Seminar” in 2012.
Leon is a Tony Award-winning Broadway and television director. He directed his first Broadway play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” in 2004 (his 2014 revival earned him his first Tony Award).
The rest of the ensemble, as earlier stated, also deliver their lines and exude their often-tragic personas in formidable fashion. Sometimes, they break out in song, humming or harmonizing according to the mood of the scene.
Other times, they march in cadence, changing the chant to better fit the all-Black company of soldiers in which they’ve aligned. There are even a few instances in which actors tap out their message, reminiscent of the great Sammy Davis Jr., Gregory Hines or Savion Glover.
As for Roundabout Theatre Company, they remain committed to celebrating the power of theater by spotlighting classics from the past, cultivating new works of the present and educating minds for the future. They present a variety of plays, musicals and new works on their five stages: Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre, Studio 54 and Stephen Sondheim Theatre and Off-Broadway’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, which houses the Laura Pels Theatre and Black Box Theatre.
As for my thoughts about “A Soldier’s Play,” I have seen and reported on hundreds of plays during my long career as a journalist. This production, without question, ranks among the best I’ve ever witnessed.
Sitting one row behind me, Suzanne Senegal, 51, given the applause she offered during the curtain call and the occasional murmurings I overhead during the production, seemed more than enthusiastic about what she’d experienced as well.
“It was excellent, exciting, electric and emotional,” said Senegal who said she happened upon the show while visiting the Big Apple from her hometown of Houston.
“And there’s something that young people who have never seen this play and have the great opportunity to see it, can take with them,” she said. “Our ancestors — the Black men and women who came before us, before today’s youth — paid a price — an incalculable price, for all of us. The freedoms we enjoy today and often take for granted did not come without a price being paid. We must remember that particularly when we yield to in-fighting within our own community that diminishes the power of Black Americans. We’re at our best and at our full strength and potential when we are unified. We only fall into the plans of the majority when we allow ourselves to be divided.”
Roundabout’s 2019-2020 Broadway season includes: “The Rose Tattoo,” by Tennessee Williams, starring Marisa Tomei, directed by Trip Cullman; “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller, starring David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, directed by Kenny Leon; “Birthday Candles,” by Noah Haidle, starring Debra Messing, directed by Vivienne Benesch; “Caroline, or Change,” by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, starring Sharon D. Clarke, directed by Michael Longhurst. For information, go to www.roundaboutheatre.org.