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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.

THE PLOT

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.

THE REVIEWS

We look at snippets from 10 reviewers, beginning with The New York Times and continuing alphabetically by publication. Note: All but two of these critics are men. None are African American.

  • The themes and the structure can sometimes seem at odds. Not, apparently, as originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, when Frank Rich, writing for The New York Times, called it “a mature and accomplished work.” Nor in the excellent 1984 movie, retitled A Soldier’s Story, which uses plenty of close-ups to keep the focus on the characters instead of the plot machinery. Onstage, though, the loud ticktock of the investigation too often drowns out the emotion — an effect perhaps enhanced by the flattening of the genre brought on by endless Law & Order spinoffs and reruns. In any case, whether A Soldier’s Play is a great stage drama regardless of its flaws is something its bumpy but worthy Broadway debut cannot answer. Despite some powerful acting, it is too distracted to make the case. — Jesse Green, The New York Times

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Blair Underwood

Blair Underwood plays Captain Richard Davenport, a rare black Army officer, and the man sent to investigate a murder on a segregated base in rural Louisiana. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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  • Some scenes depicting the fact-finding and investigation can be dry and clunky. But under Leon’s sharp and ensemble-oriented direction, the play’s cultural and political dimensions take on extended emphasis, bringing the gap between World War II-era America and the present day in its exploration of the effects of racism and the need to confront uncomfortable facts and arrive at the truth. — Matt Windman, amNY

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  • A Soldier’s Play has lost little of its power. Even in a Broadway landscape that could give home to the explosive Slave Play, Fuller’s 1981 mystery remains a bracing slap of a drama, a thoughtful examination of American bigotry and the many tolls it exacts. With three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier and a commanding Blair Underwood leading a first-rate cast, this staging moves with all the precision of a military cadence. The production is not without its missteps — a few self-conscious moments seem like gratuitous elbow jabs to make sure we understand the contemporary relevance — but director Leon drives the narrative with a solid feel for momentum. — Greg Evans, Deadline

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  • The last few years have seen an explosion of formally and thematically bold work by African American dramatists addressing race-related issues from stinging contemporary perspectives — playwrights like Dominique Morisseau, Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jeremy O. Harris, Robert O’Hara, Aleshea Harris and Antoinette Nwandu, just for starters. So the belated arrival on Broadway of Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play risks looking like a throwback to more old-fashioned, conventional drama. Yet in the hands of Kenny Leon and a terrific ensemble, this period piece about corrosive self-loathing bred out of institutionalized racism remains powerful theater. — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter

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Rob Demery - A Soldier's Play - Broadway Jan 2020

Atlanta-based actor Rob Demery (left, with castmates J. Alphonse Nicholson and McKinley Belcher III) plays the candid, sharp-tongued and sometimes womanizing Corporal Bernard Cobb in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play.” (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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  • 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

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  • 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

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David Alan Grier in "A Soldier's Play" Bway 2020

David Alan Grier, a three-time Tony Award nominee, plays the murdered soldier, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

  •  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

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  • 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)

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  • 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

 

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