The Kenny Leon-directed A Soldier’s Play — a script from 1981 — opened this week on Broadway, getting mostly favorable notices from New York critics. Only Jesse Green writing for The New York Times differed, offering a mixed review.
The Roundabout Theatre Company staging is at the American Airlines Theatre on West 42nd Street in a limited run that ends March 15. Its 12-man cast is led by David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood with Nnamdi Asomugha, McKinley Belcher III, Rob Demery, Jared Grimes, Billy Eugene Jones, Nate Mann, Warner Miller, J. Alphonse Nicholson, Jerry O’Connell and Lee Aaron Rosen. Demery, an Atlanta actor, is making his Broadway debut. Leon, who once led the Alliance Theatre and cofounded Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, still spends some of his time here. He won a directorial Tony Award for his work on A Raisin in the Sun in 2014. A Soldier’s Play is his 11th Broadway show as a director.
It’s 1944. A black sergeant is murdered on a Louisiana Army base, and one tenacious investigator must race against his white leadership to unravel the crime before they unravel him. The murder mystery, by playwright Charles Fuller, won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was made into a 1984 movie titled A Soldier’s Story.
- Leon deserves much credit for enhancing the play’s message through directorial flourishes. He adds historical allusions to the African American experience throughout, beginning with a stirring call-and-response from the soldiers in a darkened barracks suggesting the early roots of African music. And later we see the troops marching in a thrilling sequence, combining military cadence with stylized movements. It all comes together quite powerfully, evoking the emotional wounds borne by a lifetime of soul-crushing hate. After some 40 years, A Soldier’s Play still hits home, summoning a world at war with itself. — Roma Torre, NY1
- For sure, playwright Charles Fuller, who’s now 80 years old, was exploring how systemic racism often has been the root cause of African Americans destroying one another with violence. But he was also writing a thriller and a murder mystery. Today’s progressive Twitterati would probably see that choice back in the 1980s as a necessary concession to snag an audience, and a Pulitzer, especially since the play includes a relatively decent and enlightened white character, exuberantly played by Jerry O’Connell. To his credit, Leon manages to direct a show that doesn’t compromise those difficult themes while also embracing the commercial and highly entertaining nature of the writing. A Soldier’s Play remains a strikingly taut drama that you don’t want to see end. And I’d argue that only enhances its political impact. — Chris Jones, New York Daily News
- Leon’s demands on the cast are met in full. It’s as if every member is a stick of just-lighted dynamite. Grier and Underwood detonate the brightest and account for the most emotional damage inflicted, but everyone is outstanding. The same goes for Derek McLane’s set, Dede Ayite’s costumes, the Allen Lee Hughes lighting and the Dan Moses Schreier sound. — David Finkle, New York Stage Review
- The flawless revival is such good medicine for Broadway’s January blues that it might be enough just to tick off its merits: a gripping murder mystery heightened by crackling dialogue, a first-class ensemble of actors in symphonic harmony, staging that audaciously adds a pinch of sex appeal to heat up its social consciousness, and just enough music to give it a pulsing rhythm and beat that delivers us to its shocking conclusion in just under two hours. That’s the good news, and there’s only good news to report. — Jeremy Gerard, Theater News Online
- A Soldier’s Play probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. As directed by Kenny Leon in its first Broadway production, however, the play is sturdy instead of creaky. Leon’s direction emphasizes the beauty of the men’s blackness. At the start of the play and during transitions, the servicemen raise their voices in rich, deep blues. Their athletic pulchritude is on manifest display, and that extends to Underwood, as well. When the 55-year-old actor reveals a flash of flesh at the start of the second act, the show stops for a good 30 seconds of appreciative hooting. This beauty serves as an implicit refutation of his character’s self-loathing, and makes the gut punch of the play’s finale all the more affecting. It’s a bullet of a play, and it hits its targets. — Adam Feldman, Time Out New York (awarding four of five stars)
- Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only human. A superb all-male ensemble, under the powerhouse direction of Kenny Leon, attacks this knock-your-socks-off drama with intense emotional passion and intellectual courage. Breathe slowly and keep your heartbeat steady if you hope to make it through without breaking up into little pieces. — Marilyn Stasso, Variety