Eugene Lee is Sgt. Vernon C. Waters in the National Touring Company production of “A Soldier's Play,” at the Kennedy Center until Jan. 8. (Courtesy of Joan Marcu)
Eugene Lee is Sgt. Vernon C. Waters in the National Touring Company production of “A Soldier's Play,” at the Kennedy Center until Jan. 8. (Courtesy of Joan Marcu)

An Army base in the segregated South during the 1940s is the backdrop for the murder of a Black sergeant in Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” on stage at the Kennedy Center until Jan. 8.  The play explores the relationship between a platoon of soldiers on the base, under the leadership of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters, a tough leader whom his men do not like. With Black soldiers Black and White commanding officers, this murder mystery moves at a good pace, carefully unveiling layers of discovery for the audience to digest.

Waters is murdered in the opening scene. The consensus goes straight to the Ku Klux Klan as the killers. Enter Captain Richard Davenport, a Black Army lawyer played by Tony-nominated actor Norm Lewis, 59. He is sent to investigate the murder to the chagrin of Captain Charles Taylor, the White base commander.

Lewis is in charge from the moment he comes on stage. He plays a no-backing-down officer who is determined to get the truth regardless of Taylor’s resistance. Constantly frustrated by his position, Taylor, played by William Connell, tries to take a very hard position to block Davenport’s work. Taylor eventually realizes he and Davenport must work together.

“Fuller’s work is so smart. Rediscovering it from this standpoint has made us understand that it is never-ending,” Lewis said during an interview a few weeks before arriving in Washington. “It touches on the dynamics of racism, not only from White to Black but also from Black to Black and that power struggle. It makes you feel like this is familiar territory.”

The enlisted men are willing to talk to Davenport about the environment on base and Waters’, played by Eugene Lee, harsh treatment towards them. Though his character is killed in the production’s opening scene, Waters appears throughout “A Soldier’s Play” in flashback scenes. 

Lee, 69, is outstanding as the sergeant you love to hate. He knows this play inside-out as he was in the original 1981 Negro Ensemble production of “A Soldier’s Play.” He played a different character back then, which gives him an advantage with the material in this national touring company production.

As the clues kept adding up to solve the murder, several characters trip over themselves through a combination of inconsistent alibis and wavering loyalties between friends.

The 2020 Broadway revival of “A Soldier’s Play,” directed by Kenny Leon, won the Tony Award for Best Revival. Leon has done a superb job directing this national touring company at the Kennedy Center. Bringing Lee into the company was easy for Leon. He was familiar with Lee’s work in the original production. Leon also directed Lee in other Broadway productions.

“He knows the character,” Leon said about Lee’s portrayal of Waters. “I also got to know Charles Fuller over the years before he passed in October,” Leon continued in a one-on-one interview during intermission. “When you combine the work of Eugene Lee with these young actors, then put Norm Lewis with that, you’ve got a great company.”

For tickets and more information on “A Soldier’s Play,” go to the Kennedy Center website at www.kennedy-center.org.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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