In Charles Fuller’s 1981 play about a murder investigation into the death of an African American noncommissioned officer on a Louisiana military installation in 1944, the investigating officer, Captain Davenport, is the rare example of a black elevated to the ranks normally reserved solely for whites. As such, and serving in a segregated army, Davenport has his feet in two distinct worlds at once: the heavily-repressed African American community, and the privileged ranks of a commissioned officer in the United States Army. It is an exceptionally difficult line upon which he walks, but he pursues his investigation in Sergeant Waters’ death with complete disregard for the social niceties expected of a minority in a racist society. Captain Davenport is an educated and serious man, and he is sensitive to the demeaning nature of Army’s treatment of the black soldier in this segregated army, yet, like Sergeant Waters, expects these soldiers to carry out their mission with professionalism. Where Davenport is significantly different than the now-dead sergeant, however, is in the latter’s frustration with the sacrifices blacks have had to make without the benefit of treatment equal to whites. In fact, so bitter is Waters regarding the plight of African American soldiers, that he directs his anger more at what he considers to be stereotypical low-class blacks, personified in his platoon by Private C.J. Memphis, a sweet-natured but uneducated black, than at the whites.
A Soldier’s Play begins in the “current” day, meaning the story leading up to Sergeant Waters’ murder is told in flashback, as Davenport investigates the crime. Davenport’s investigation, understandably, requires he interview the soldiers in Waters’ platoon, all of whom hated their sergeant and few of whom mourn his death. It is in this context that, during a conversation among the soldiers in the platoon regarding the murder of Sergeant Waters, a crime many assume was carried out by local white supremacists, Private Henson utters, “. . .who ever did it, didn’t kill much, anyway.” This sentiment will recur in the play’s final scene. Sergeant Waters, as mentioned, hated ‘low-class’ blacks, and C.J. Memphis embodied that characterization. The following are quotes from Waters expressing his intense dislike for blacks who he believes are hurting the African American race through their crude, unsophisticated behavior:
“We don’t need that guitar playin’-sittin’-‘roun-the-shack music today, C.J.”
“ . . .whatever an ignorant low-class geechy like you has to say isn’t worth paying attention to, is it, C.J?”
“Do you know the damage one ignorant negro can do?”
“Them Nazis ain’t all crazy. Whole lot of people just can’t seem to fit in to where things seem to be going. Like you, C.J. See, the Black race can’t afford you no more. . .The day of the Geechee is gone, boy. And you’re going with it.”
“We’re men. Soldiers. And I don’t intend for our race to be cheated of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J.”
Sergeant Waters, in short, is a bigoted man; as bigoted in his own way as the whites who have exploited him and men like him while maintaining the institutions of racial segregation. The soldiers in his platoon, especially the proud and defiant Private Peterson, deeply resent Waters’ framing of the amiable C.J., and the latter’s suicide further deepens their hostility to the sergeant. In the play’s final scene, when Captain Davenport questions, first, Private Smalls, then Peterson, the latter responds to the officer’s accusation of murder by stating, “I didn't kill much. Some things need getting rid of.” This comment by Peterson hits Davenport hard, because he knows that, justifying murder on the basis of a determination of an individual’s ‘right’ to live is no different than what Waters did to C.J., or what Hitler was systematically doing to Jews and others during the Holocaust. That is why Davenport responds to Peterson’s comment by asking, “Who gave you...the right to judge? To decide who is fit...to be a Negro...and who is not?” Captain Davenport is deeply saddened by Peterson’s attitude, as it is morally equivalent to the worst of mankind. Just as Sergeant Waters had no right to determine who was suitable to represent the black race, neither did Private Davenport have that right.