Dramatization of Black Soldiers' Struggle During WWII

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During World War II, the military finally succumbed to pressure to create black combat battalions. For most of the war, these units were largely for show and had very little role in the war effort, but near the end of the war when the need for more men surfaced, a few of these units were finally mobilized and sent to Europe. Some of these men, who had anticipated they would finally engage in battle, instead helped to liberate concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Lambach. What they saw shocked them. These black soldiers, who had come from the segregation of 1940s America, were face to face with the effects of Hitler’s racism. But there are other effects of racism, as Charles Fuller proves.

In A Soldier’s Play, Fuller presents one possible effect of the racism that divides the United States in the 1940s. The black soldiers at this small Louisiana post are anxious to be sent across the ocean to fight Hitler, whom they are confident they can beat as effectively as any white soldiers can. But, as the war drags on, black soldiers sit and wait while whites are sent into battle. This is the racism of exclusion, which breeds hatred and ultimately leads to murder. In his play, Fuller demonstrates that sometimes racism can be turned inward. In A Soldier’s Play, American racism is juxtaposed against the dark shadow of Hitler’s racism. By the time the play ends, Fuller leaves the audience questioning their own prejudices and wondering if racism can be quantitatively judged.

Much of the shock that Americans felt at the end of World War II, derived from Hitler’s ghastly extermination of more than 11 million people. This outrage is couched in an awareness that American society could never engage in racism is such an ugly way. But that ignores that effects of systematic racism, which dehumanizes people and consumes them slowly, over time. Sergeant Waters is an example of how racism can destroy a man. Waters readily admits that during World War I he participated in the murder of a young black man. The murder occurred in France when white soldiers took an ‘‘ignorant colored soldier. Paid him to tie a tail to his ass and parade around naked making monkey sounds.’’ Waters and other blacks slit the black soldier’s throat. He tells Wilkie that blacks must turn their backs on ‘‘fools like C.J.’’ who would cheat their own race out of the honor and respect they deserve. Earlier, Waters tells C.J. he has gotten rid of five other soldiers at previous posts. And Waters explains that he did it because he does not want blacks cheated out of the opportunities that he thinks they will derive from fighting in World War II.

This proud admission reveals the hatred that Waters has for his fellow blacks. In his eyes, blacks must meet a higher standard that will help ensure their escape for the oppression of racism. Southern blacks, like C.J., recall stereotypes of black minstrels, who sing, dance, and clown around. Men who look like fools and behave like fools will negate all that a few good blacks can accomplish, according to Waters, who believes that all blacks must be superior to whites if blacks are to become equal to whites. But then C. J. does the unexpected and kills himself, and suddenly Waters is forced to question what he has become. He finally understands that he has willingly destroyed another man and turned his back on his people and has achieved nothing. Whites still do not like him, and they still refuse to accept...

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him as an equal. And the audience must finally admit that they are complicit in this tragedy because they too have tolerated racism.

In constructing this play as a detective story, Fuller seeks to involve the audience in the action on the stage. Suspects are introduced and motives explored in an attempt to keep the audience guessing. In their essay on the detective elements of A Soldier’s Play, Linda K. Hughes and Howard Faulkner point out that Fuller manages to implicate the audience in the quest to solve the killer’s identity and that ‘‘to the degree that we abandon open minds and jump to conclusions about the killer’s identity at the outset, we deduce from stereotypes instead of inductively seeking the solution.’’ This is because Fuller’s red herrings are white officers and the Ku Klux Klan. The setting is the south, and the audience expects the killer of a black man to be whites.

In that sense, the audience participates in racism. Hughes and Faulkner argue that the audience initially sympathizes with Waters. At the end of the first act, he appears to be sympathetic, but as the second act unfolds, the audience learns that ‘‘Waters is, if not a racist himself, one who imposes stereotypes and rigid codes of behavior on fellow blacks.’’ Waters’ vision of racial progress does not include fools like C.J. This act of black discriminating against black, just as white can discriminate against black, or white against white is, according to Hughes and Faulkner, suggested by ‘‘Them Nazis ain’t all crazy,’’ a sentence, they argue, that ‘‘reverberates throughout the fabric of the entire play.’’ This sentence, ‘‘reminds us that World War II was, in a sense, a racial war, a war to stop Hitler’s dream of the Super Race. But black soldiers drafted to fight Hitler first had to confront a racial war of their own in the United States.’’ Thus Waters in both victim and victimizer, according to Hughes and Faulkner, who also point out that the ending of the play tells the audiences that the entire company was wiped out in that ‘‘other racial war in Germany.’’ Thus, the audience is again reminded that both racial wars are connected for the black soldier.

It is worth remembering that Waters is not the only black man to kill another black soldier. The play’s conclusion reveals that Peterson is Waters’s killer. Both, men, as Hughes and Faulkner note, ‘‘double as victimizers impelled by white racism and their own capitulation to imposed stereotypes of ‘proper’ black behavior. Both [Peterson and Waters] are willing to kill a fellow black to uphold that code, to ‘purify’ their race; and insofar as they do so, they are also eerie parallels of Hitler, whom Waters partly admires.’’ But racism and prejudice are not limited to Peterson and Waters. Davenport initially thinks Byrd and Wilcox are guilty of the murder. He also assumes, erroneously it turns out, that other white officers are engaged in covering up a white officer’s involvement. Later, Taylor, who assumes that blacks are neither intelligent enough nor devious enough to have committed the murder, wants Byrd and Wilcox arrested because he believes the two white officers must be guilty, since, clearly whites must be guilty. There is enough racism and prejudice to go around for everyone in the cast to engage in some aspect of this bigotry. Steven Carter’s analysis of Davenport’s role as detective offers some insight into how Davenport fulfills the traditional role of detective. The traditional skills of the detective, include being able to,

place reason over emotion, admit past and even current mistakes so that you can find truth in the present, view a situation as a whole rather than be blinded by a part, rid yourself of preconceptions so that you can see reality more clearly. And perhaps hardest and most important of all, acknowledge the destructive elements in your own personality so that you can better understand the destructive side of others.

Carter states that these skills are also effective in counteracting and eliminating racism. That Davenport is able to finally solve the case, according to Carter, ‘‘depends largely on his ability to free himself from racist preconceptions of any type.’’ Davenport is able to stay focused on the issue at hand, but, as Carter points out, both Waters and Peterson have become so confused and so involved with in-group bickering that they almost lose sight of their real enemies, white racism at home and Nazi racist imperialism abroad.’’ Self-hatred, the byproduct of systematic racism, is responsible for the destruction of both these men. As the play ends, Davenport tells the audience that four men were lost and that ‘‘none of their reasons—nothing anyone said, or did, would have been worth a life to men with larger hearts-men less split by the madness of race in America.’’

Fuller asks his audience to question the effects of racism, to question their prejudices. In A Soldier’s Play, the effects of racial self-hatred lead two men to murder, for Waters murders C.J. just as surely as if he had tied the noose. The audience is asked to consider that ordinary men are capable of murder when pushed to extraordinary lengths. William W. Demastes, in an article that questions the role of prejudice in Fuller’s play, observes that the typical murder mystery looks to the extreme or atypical conditions that lead to murder, such as the Ku Klux Klan confronting radical blacks. Instead, says Demastes, Fuller ‘‘challenges the standard, comfortable assumptions that tensions exist only between such radical elements of both races.’’ The racism that resulted in Nazi concentration camps shocked people, as it should. But Fuller would like his audience to consider that racism that results in blacks murdering blacks is also shocking and deserving of greater thought. When Waters real intent toward C.J. is revealed and when Peterson is disclosed as the murderer, the audience should be dismayed as well as stunned. And they should question their own prejudices.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Metzger is a Ph.D., specializing in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico.

Theatre Chronicle

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For a change, this year’s Pulitzer Prize actually went to the season’s most deserving work: Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and directed by Douglas Turner Ward. But it deserves criticism as well as praise.

Set in 1944, A Soldier’s Play could also have been written then; it is a straightforward piece of psychological realism that takes the form of a murder mystery. In the first scene, Vernon C. Waters (Adolph Caesar), a Tech/Sergeant in the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company, is killed by two unknown assailants. Waters is black, as are the other noncoms and enlisted men at Fort Neal, Louisiana, in the year before the end of World War II. Suspecting that the killers are white and fearing a racial conflict between the soldiers and the residents of the nearby town of Tynan, the white officers restrict their troops to the base and order an investigation.

A black captain, Richard Davenport (Charles Brown), assigned to the military police, arrives at Fort Neal to conduct the inquiry (and to narrate the play, which largely consists of flashbacks). Davenport is reluctantly assisted by a white captain, Charles Taylor (Peter Friedman), a West Pointer who makes known his antagonism by aggressively announcing, ‘‘I never saw a Negro until I was twelve or thirteen.’’ Still, it is clear to both of them that the investigation is supposed to fail, since everyone assumes that the murderers are white and will thus be impossible to bring to justice in the South. ‘‘Don’t take yourself too seriously,’’ Taylor warns Davenport, who sardonically acknowledges that ‘‘the matter was given the lowest priority.’’

Nonetheless, the black captain persists, eventually daring to cast suspicion on two white officers, Lieutenant Byrd (Sam McMurray) and Captain Wilcox (Stephen Zettler). By this time, Taylor has grudgingly come to respect Davenport’s efforts; in fact, he is even more eager than his black colleague to bring charges against his fellow whites. But Davenport has begun to believe that the case is more than an incident of racial violence. His questioning of the black soldiers gradually leads him—and us— to the uncomfortable realization that the murder was committed by someone under Waters’ command.

As the captain digs deeper, a complex portrait of the dead sergeant emerges from the flashbacks that spring out of the interrogation sessions around which the play is structured. A veteran of World War I, Waters is a career man and a strict disciplinarian who expects his troops to toe the white man’s line as squarely as he does. When he busts Corporal James Wilkie (Steven A. Jones) to the rank of private for being drunk on duty, Waters complains, ‘‘No wonder they treat us like dogs.’’ His favorite target for abuse is a Southern black, Private C. J. Memphis (David Alan Grier), who represents everything he despises. Pleasant but slow-witted, Memphis is the star of the company baseball team, as well as a mournful blues guitarist and singer. But to

Waters, a Northerner, Memphis is nothing but an embarrassing exemplar of a ‘‘strong black buck.’’ ‘‘Niggers aren’t like that today,’’ the sergeant sneers. Waters is no simple Uncle Tom, however. ‘‘This country’s at war,’’ he tells his men, ‘‘and you niggers are soldiers.’’ To him, they must be more than good soldiers—they must be the best, for their own sake if not the army’s. ‘‘Most niggers just don’t care,’’ he claims. ‘‘But not havin’s no excuse for not gettin’. We got to challenge the man in his arena.’’ In his twisted way, Waters truly believes that the black race can only advance by following his example— by being better than the white man at his own game. ‘‘Do you know the damage one ignorant Negro can do?’’ he asks Memphis. ‘‘The black race can’t afford you laughin’ and clownin’.’’

Davenport soon learns the lengths to which Waters went to ‘‘close our ranks on the chittlins and collard greens style.’’ During the year before his death, the company team had been so successful that a game with the Yankees was in the works if the Fort Neal soldiers were to win their conference title. But the better the troops do on the field, the worse they do on the base. ‘‘Every time we beat them at baseball,’’ the soldiers complain about their white opponents, ‘‘they get back at us any way they can’’—in work details ranging from KP to painting the officers’ club. Waters, of course, believes ‘‘these men need all the discipline they can get,’’ since he regards their athletic achievements as frivolous, even dangerous, because they reinforce the white man’s stereotype of the black.

To his horror, Davenport discovers that Waters found a way of eliminating Memphis while simultaneously sabotaging the team. The sergeant framed the hapless private for a mysterious shooting on the base (‘‘one less fool for the race to be ashamed of’’), and when Memphis killed himself in the stockade, the players threw the championship game in protest. But the cost of Waters’ demented discipline was a growing desire for vengeance among his troops. As Davenport finally determines, two of them—Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) and Private Tony Smalls (Brent Jennings)— took matters into their own hands and killed their tormentor. Yet even at the moment of his death, Waters had the last word, or words—the same ones that opened the play. ‘‘You got to be like them,’’ he cries in torment. ‘‘But the rules are fixed. It doesn’t make any difference. They still hate you.’’

Whatever else can be said about A Soldier’s Play, Fuller must be credited for creating a truly tragic character for whom those words are an anguished, self-proclaimed epitaph. It is in Waters that the toll of racism is most apparent. To be sure, all the black characters in the drama are representative of different modes of dealing with white oppression: the cautious rationality of Davenport, the self-abasement of Wilkie (brilliantly brought to life by Jones), the unenlightened self-interest of Smalls. Likewise, Memphis embodies the black past, stolid and humble, just as surely as Peterson does the future, or at least one possible future: righteous but also arrogant.

Yet Waters is unique among the men by being both the engineer of his own downfall and the victim of his circumstances; like all genuinely tragic figures, he attains universality because of rather than despite the stubborn reality of his particularity. From the smallest of his affectations—the pompous, gravelly voice, the pipe-smoking, the military carriage, the cultivated disdain for his inferiors—to the enormity of his crimes against his own people in their name, the costs of Waters’ unnatural, willful assimilation are painfully apparent. (‘‘Any man don’t know where he belongs,’’ says Memphis, ‘‘got to be in a lot of pain.’’) Fuller’s resolute writing and Caesar’s forceful acting have created a truly unlikeable yet strangely sympathetic character, unpleasant yet unexpectedly revealing of what we fear as the worst accommodationist impulses in ourselves.

Unfortunately, Fuller does not handle the investigation into Waters’ violent death as ably as he does the sergeant’s tortured life. Somehow the murder mystery comes to dominate the other elements of the play; the larger problems of human behavior in adverse circumstances become secondary to the whodunit questions of motive and opportunity. True, the investigation gives the drama a certain forward momentum, but not enough to disguise the fact that almost everything interesting takes place in the past. The most compelling figure is the victim, whose life is revealed in flashback; the action in the present is, for the most part, structured according to the familiar strategy of revelations leading to further revelations and ultimately to a rather comfortable resolution.

Not too comfortable, mind you; Fuller is to be commended for honestly exposing how racism distorts the soul of not just the oppressor but the victim. For this genuine revelation (as opposed to the convenient revelations that advance the plot) to matter to us, however, it must matter to the character through whose eyes we perceive it. And it is not unreasonable to expect that Davenport’s discoveries will change him—somehow. After all, he began his inquiry more or less convinced that the killers were white, and then had to overcome his own prejudices to uncover the truth. He could also see something of himself in Waters. Though younger, the captain must have had to pay the same dues as the sergeant—perhaps even more, to rise to the higher rank.

Yet Davenport maintains an eerie emotional distance throughout (which is underscored by Brown’s rather affectless performance; he is so cool that he practically freezes into rigidity). Perhaps Fuller thereby meant to comment on the captain’s notion of soldierly conduct, which causes him to be almost color-blind. Indeed, early in the play, Davenport rebuffs Wilkie’s presumption of racial familiarity (‘‘You all we got down here,’’ the private claims).

But this sort of irony seems absent elsewhere, particularly from the author’s decision to set the play so far in the past. (I do not think the drama required the segregated army, which came to an end after the war; in fact, the play might have been more pointed had it been set after integration. As for the war itself, it could as easily have been Korea or Vietnam—or no war at all, for all the difference it makes to the action.) Did Fuller believe that the attitudes represented by, say, Memphis and Waters would seem outdated today? That Davenport, too, would seem anachronistic, or even Peterson insuffi- ciently militant? Or did he think (or does he recognize) that setting A Soldier’s Play in 1944 somehow lets all of us—playwright, cast, audience—off the hook? Or was it that he wanted all concerned to consider the drama as art rather than as ‘‘relevant’’ social comment? It is not that I suspect Fuller’s motives—it is just that I don’t know what they are.

Source: Robert Asahina. ‘‘Theatre Chronicle’’ in the Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, no. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 439–42.

Favorable Review of Fuller's Play

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After fourteen seasons, the Negro Ensemble Company can no longer be regarded as an exotic enterprise on the fringe. The N.E.C. came into being because the established American theater didn’t seem to have any place for the black experience. So the group proceeded to carve such a place for itself, with determination if not always a clear notion of what it was doing. Its stance was either aggressive, that of an adversary, or defensive, which meant insular and self-validating; it stumbled, fell, rose and kept going.

Never quite a true ensemble, in that it frequently brings in performers for particular productions, the company has had difficulty creating an identifi- able style, a way of doing things unmistakably its own. If it still has that difficulty, at least its repertory has become much more flexible, so that its socially oriented realism has lost some of the pugnacious, parochial quality that once marred it.

Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, the opening production of the N.E.C.’s fifteenth season, is exemplary of this change and, as I see it, this growth. A flawed but estimable play, it’s about the black experience but is supple enough in its thematic range and social perspectives to treat that experience as part of a complex whole, as part of American reality in its widest sense. To be released from an adversary position may mean a loss of fierceness— it certainly means a reduction in ideological thunder—but it can make for an increase in subtle wisdom and intellectual rigor.

Not that A Soldier’s Play is a triumph of the dramatic imagination. But it is intelligent and morally various enough to overcome some basic uncertainties and remnants of the N.E.C.’s older confrontational manner, and so commend itself to our attention. Set in a Louisiana army camp in 1944, the play deals with the fatal shooting of a black sergeant (reflecting the times, blacks are called ‘‘negroes’’ or ‘‘coloreds’’), a martinet who, out of shame at his people’s seeming acceptance of their inferior status, is tougher on his own men than are their white officers.

He’s far from likable, but when he’s killed and the culprits aren’t found, the mood turns ugly among the black soldiers. At first, the Klan is suspected, then some white officers, but the brass wants no trouble and the incident is shunted aside. Finally, an investigator is sent from Washington, a black lieutenant with a law degree from Howard University. His relationship with the white captain previously in charge of the case makes up the moral and psychological center of the drama, which on one level proceeds as a moderately absorbing detective story.

The captain, an earnest liberal, is convinced he knows who the killers are but feels his hands are tied, and he grows impatient with the black officer’s slow, careful inquiry. The real problem, however, is the dislocation the captain experiences in his abstract good will. ‘‘I can’t get used to it,’’ he tells the black man, ‘‘your uniform, your bars.’’ Still, he comes to accept the investigator, whose mind is much more in tune with reality than his own and who eventually brings the case to a surprising conclusion. Along the way there are some deft perceptions about both political and psychological matters, and a jaunty historical sense: ‘‘Look out, Hitler,’’ a soldier says, ‘‘the niggers is comin’ to get your ass.’’

The biggest burden the play carries is the direction of Douglas Turner Ward, the N.E.C.’s artistic director, who is also a well-known playwright. Ward manages the many flashbacks, through which the action is propelled, with a heavy hand: lights go up or down with painful slowness, figures from the past take their places obediently in the present. There are also some soft spots among the performances and an unpleasant ending, or coda, in which the black officer gratuitously reminds his white colleague of the lessons taught and learned. Yet in its calm concern for prickly truths and its intellectual sobriety, A Soldier’s Play elicits the audience’s approval, if not its boisterous enthusiasm.

Source: Richard Gilman. Review of A Soldier’s Play in the Nation, Vol. 234, no. 3, January 23, 1982, pp. 90–91.


Critical Overview