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.
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...
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