A Soldier’s Play opened November 20, 1981, at the Negro Ensemble Company for the first of 468 performances. Fuller has stated that his play is modeled after Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, which explores a confrontation between evil and innocence that results in tragedy. While it is about the investigation of a murder, A Soldier’s Play is not a murder mystery in the strictest sense. The investigation does not consist of policemen unraveling clues or of the simple analysis of physical evidence. Instead, the investigation by a black officer is primarily an exploration into who the slain Waters really was and how racism influences men’s behaviors and ideals. The investigator, Captain Davenport, tries to solve this mystery by interviewing the men who served under Waters.
These interviews provide pieces of a puzzle, that when assembled, create a picture of a complex man who often bullied his men but who saw the war as an opportunity for blacks to escape the constraints of segregation. The portrait of Waters reveals a man who has found the only power white men will give to a black man—as a non-commissioned officer in the army during World War II. Critics were enthusiastic about Fuller’s play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Award in 1982, but A Soldier’s Play also provoked controversy. Where some critics argued that Fuller was forcing audience members to confront their own prejudge, a leading black dramatist, Amiri Baraka, accused Fuller of working against his own race and of fulfilling the dreams of white power. Fuller’s play was never produced on Broadway; rumor has it that Fuller refused to remove the last line of the play, ‘‘you’ll get used to it [Negroes being in charge].’’