Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446
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 case. Initially assumed to be racially motivated, the murder’s prime suspects are the white townspeople. The Ku Klux Klan is the first suspect, then two white officers. Davenport’s thorough investigation, conducted in an atmosphere of racial hostility, mistrust on all sides, and condescension, leads to a surprising discovery of the murderer and the motives for the murder. The murderer is P.F.C. Peterson, the least-likely suspect.
Strong, outspoken, and opinionated, Peterson faces off with Waters, whose militant agenda for black destiny causes the innocent, naïve C. J. to commit suicide. Water’s heinous, sinister, and obsessive master plan to cleanse the black race of “geeches” such as C. J. meets its match in Peterson’s own calculated perspective of how to refashion the black image. Mutual hatred eventually leads to murder, not before, however, Waters realizes the flaw in his inhumane master plan, grieves his obsession with blackness, and challenges the source of his misdirected self-justifying posture.
In focusing on the character of Waters rather than on the murder or the murderer, Fuller is able to engage and address the major causes and effects of the race problem, particularly the psychological. The play indicts all of the characters—white and black, except C. J.—for racially motivated violence informed by pervasive prejudice and dangerous stereotypical assumptions.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 787
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 walking, talking stereotype of a talented, self-deprecating black man, and Waters hates the type. He frames C. J. to get him thrown into the brig so he can intimidate him and change his ways.
Yet the physically strong C. J. is psychologically weak. Driven to desperation in prison, C. J. commits suicide. Waters, who has a conscience after all, suffers guilt for what C. J. has done and turns to drink. His presumption is his tragic flaw; it causes his downfall and, ultimately, his death.
Gradually, Davenport begins to suspect that Waters might have been murdered by his own men, who blamed him for the death of C. J. The team falls apart and loses its chance to be the first all-black team to play the New York Yankees during an exhibition. Waters loses the respect of his men and then his own self-respect. Although Davenport suspects that Waters might have been murdered by his own men, Captain Taylor is pressing him to prosecute two white officers, Lieutenant Byrd and Captain Wilcox, who were placed at the scene of the crime shortly before the killing took place.
The issue becomes one of justice, not race, though the theme of racial justice is an important secondary one. Davenport is a good and dedicated lawyer who follows the evidence to where it takes him, discouraging though that may be. By the end of the play, one of the culprits has been apprehended; in a final monologue, the audience is told that the murderer will be captured a week later in Alabama, leaving the impression that justice will be done in military circles.
Yet there are other, larger social problems that are left unresolved. As Davenport’s final monologue makes clear at the end of the play, the entire all-black company is doomed, even though they have won the right to fight the Germans in Europe. Davenport explains at the conclusion that the men of the company, the “entire outfit—officers and enlisted men—was wiped out in the Ruhr Valley during a German advance.”
Moreover, Sergeant Waters is honored as a hero; he is believed to be the first black soldier from his hometown to die in action, because his death was wrongly reported. Thus, although the play celebrates a victory for the black soldiers, who win the right to fight for their country, the story ends with an ironic denouement that is devastating. The moral victory and the resolution of justice are made to seem hollow by the final monologue, which was removed from the film version. Fuller was given the opportunity to reinvent his drama for the screen and, in doing so, managed to clarify the message, even though the tone of the conclusion was substantially changed.