Study Guide

A Soldier's Play

by Charles Fuller

A Soldier's Play Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

A Soldier’s Play, which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1982, is a murder mystery in which Charles Fuller examines many social issues and poses provocative questions. The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, with a citation for best American play. The screenplay adaptation, A Soldier’s Story (1984), which Fuller wrote, garnered an Academy Award nomination for adapted screenplay.

A play in two acts, A Soldier’s Play examines and evaluates the causes of oppression of African Americans and the obstacles to their advancement. Unlike Fuller’s two other award-winning plays, The Brownsville Raid (1976) and Zooman and the Sign (1979), A Soldier’s Play has no particular, actual historical source. The play very realistically describes, however, the complex social issues that pervade his work: institutional, systemic racism in the U.S. Army during World War II; race relations; black genocide and the search for the meaning and definition of blackness in America; the meaning of democracy and the place of African Americans in it; and what it means to be black in a racially biased society.

Outside a segregated U.S. Army camp in Tynin, Louisiana, during World War II, a tyrannical technical sergeant, Vernon Waters, is murdered. The local brass has succeeded in playing down the murder until a Howard-trained attorney, Captain Davenport, is sent by Washington, D.C., to investigate the...

(The entire section is 446 words.)

A Soldier's Play Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

A Soldier’s Play is set on an Army base at Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944, near the end of World War II. A black soldier, Master Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, has been murdered at night on a country road near the base. The black soldiers and their white officers believe that the killing was racially motivated and probably the work of the Ku Klux Klan. In order to avoid tension between the black soldiers on the base and the local civilians, Colonel Nivens, the base commander, has not ordered a full investigation; the murder is not given the same kind of attention it would have been if a white soldier had been the victim. Captain Taylor, his subordinate, believes justice should be served, however, and he has reported the killing to Army headquarters. Consequently, an officer is sent from Washington, D.C., to investigate the murder.

The Department of the Army dispatches a bright Howard University-trained military attorney, Captain Richard Davenport, who happens to be an oddity for the time, a black officer. Both Colonel Nivens and Captain Taylor are worried about how local whites will react to Davenport. Nivens is convinced that the killers were white, and he assumes that Davenport will go after these racist murderers with a vengeance, causing problems in the white community. Nivens, however, does not understand the man Washington has sent.

Davenport’s investigation is thorough, meticulous, and fair. He discovers that Waters was a hard taskmaster, feared by most of his men and despised by some of them. The story is revealed in flashbacks in which Waters alienates his men by picking on a well-liked, good-natured country boy named C. J. Memphis, whom he sends to the brig on a trumped-up charge. C. J. is held there and intimidated by the sergeant. Waters is embarrassed by C. J. and his Uncle Tom ways. C. J. is a gifted musician and also the best batter on the company’s baseball team; he is a...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

A Soldier's Play Summary

Act I Summary

The play opens with the murder of Sergeant Waters. The audience sees Waters on stage; he is drunk. Immediately there are two shots, but the...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

Act II Summary

Act II opens with another monologue by Captain Davenport, who tells the audience that he has gone to Colonel Nivens and received permission...

(The entire section is 332 words.)