Summary (Identities & Issues 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.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
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 audience never sees who fires the weapon. In the next scene, five black soldiers are being searched for weapons and they are confined to their barracks, presumably until the risk of a revenge killing ends. Captain Davenport appears on stage and addresses the audience in a monologue that explains why a black lawyer has been sent to a southern army base to investigate a murder. There is immediate conflict when the company captain, Taylor, learns that Davenport is black. Taylor warns Davenport that he will get no cooperation and that no one in authority will allow a black officer to arrest a white man, if the murderer turns out to be white. Taylor also tells Davenport that white officers at the post will not accept a black man of equal rank, and that in his experience, blacks are subordinates without education. Davenport insists on performing his assignment and sets up to interview the men in Waters’s company.
The first man interviewed is Wilkie, who tells Davenport that Waters put him in jail and reduced his rank after Wilkie was caught drunk on duty. Wilkie also tells Davenport about the black baseball team and how the black soldiers beat the white soldiers at baseball. From Wilkie, the audience learns that Waters, who thought southern blacks lazy and shiftless, was especially kind to C.J. C.J. was not only good with...
(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 to question the two white officers involved. When he finishes this speech, Davenport begins questioning the next man, Henson. Henson relates how C.J. was framed by someone who placed a gun under his bed. When Waters told C.J. that he was under arrest, the young soldier attacked Waters, who then arrested C.J. and charged him with attacking a superior officer during time of war. The men discuss the arrest and decide to go to the captain and tell him that they saw someone sneak into the barracks and plant a gun under C.J.’s bed. When Davenport interviews Cobb, he is told that Cobb visited C.J. in jail and that the young man was severely depressed by the confinement. The day after the visit, C.J. commited suicide. The next interview is with Byrd and Wilcox. Taylor is also present. The atmosphere is filled with tension, but eventually Davenport learns that both Wilcox and Bryd have been cleared when their weapons passed ballistics tests.
At this point, Davenport goes back to interview Wilkie a second time and learns that it was Wilkie who planted the evidence that resulted in C.J.’s arrest. Wilkie also reveals that Waters hated southern blacks and thought they made all blacks look foolish. At that moment, Ellis enters to announce that the company has orders and will be leaving for Europe within 48 hours. Davenport...
(The entire section is 332 words.)