Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
A Soldier’s Play explores the corrosive effects of racism by focusing on the tragedy of one man, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. Although he has distinguished himself in World War I and has risen in the ranks by his own effort and against an entrenched racism, his vision of himself extends far beyond his own career. His action reflects another purpose, one grander than simple personal success: Waters has taken upon himself the role of savior of all African Americans in a racist society. Like Hamlet, Waters takes it upon himself to set things right. Waters’s sinister side, however, is that he attempts to eliminate any black he considers inferior. By dramatizing the story of Waters, Fuller creates a powerfully moving tragedy.
Waters’s identity as tragic hero is revealed to the audience slowly, through Fuller’s use of the mystery plot vehicle. The investigating officer, Captain Richard Davenport, conducts a series of interviews in which characters summarize incidents involving Waters. Complicating the understanding of Waters is the fact that the soldiers interviewed themselves do not understand him. Wilkie, the first soldier interviewed, respects Waters because he earned his rank and is faithful to his wife and children; the second, Peterson, despises Waters because he sees him as a black bigot. The whites are even more divided on Waters: Captain Taylor thinks of him as a simpleton who does his job adequately, but the two bigots, Byrd and Wilcox,...
(The entire section is 1269 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Like many of his other works, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play shows the devastating effect racism has both psychologically and physically on its victims and perpetrators. Fuller’s goal is to expose both overt racist behaviors and beliefs, and those that are so ingrained in the culture that they are taken for granted.
In an interview with George Goodman of The New York Times, Fuller describes how the themes in his work (and the work of other African American writers in the early 1980’s) were shifting from “focusing on our problems with whites, to matters involving blacks as human beings.” Instead of depicting simple confrontations between blacks and whites, Fuller was “concerned about how racism affects blacks in their dealing with each other rather than as victims of a larger plot by whites. I want to explore the internal psychological effects of racism.”
Fuller is also concerned about showing black men as complex humans instead of simplistic stereotypes. As the audience sees from the various interviews with the other characters, Waters is a black man with a Messiah complex, determined to save blacks from a racist American society; yet he is willing to sacrifice some of them to accomplish this goal. In the process he denies his own culture and loses his identity. C. J. is a threat to him because, by maintaining strong connections to his cultural traditions and music, C. J. maintains his identity in the face...
(The entire section is 343 words.)
The alienation that black soldiers feel is best demonstrated by the baseball games that are played between white and blacks. The black soldiers view the baseball games as one area where they can prove superiority over white soldiers. The blacks are treated as subservient and subordinate underlings. They are not given the opportunity to be real soldiers; instead they function as little more than servants, handymen, garbage collectors, and gardeners. When these same black soldiers meet white soldiers on the baseball field, the game makes them equal, and when the black team wins, they are superior. Black soldiers emerge from the games knowing that they will be alienated and punished for winning, but their victory makes the alienation more tolerable.
Anger & Hatred
Although he disguises it, Waters really hates what he is—a black man, a black soldier in the army. He is so consumed with self-hatred that he turns it upon the men in his company. Waters is given power over other men; it is a power given by whites and largely controlled by whites, but Waters thinks that if he can do the job well, that he can change the white perception of the black man. So he is harder on his men and crueler than a white officer would be, and he tries to eliminate those blacks that he thinks would be unable to compete in a white man’s world. Waters sees black survival in becoming white. He hates his own black race and his history, and he...
(The entire section is 766 words.)