The Play

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A Soldier’s Play exposes the institutional racism of the Army in the 1940’s and explores the psychological effects of oppression on African Americans. Although set in 1944 in a segregated barracks at Fort Neal, Louisiana, the play shows the pervasive effects of racism by utilizing the detective mystery form. Ironically, the all-black company is eager to fight for justice in World War II but has not yet been deployed because of discrimination.

The play begins with Sergeant Vernon C. Waters’s murder; the setting then immediately shifts to the barracks of Company B. The white commanding officers, Captain Charles Taylor particularly, are fearful that Waters’s murder may cause a violent racial confrontation between the company and whites in nearby Tynin, Louisiana. Captain Taylor’s anxiety increases when he meets the black lawyer sent to investigate the case, Captain Richard Davenport.

Davenport’s investigation consists of interviews with soldiers who knew Waters, and these interviews allow the audience to form a composite characterization of Waters. Each interview is an incident dramatized on stage as it happened in the past; for example, the first interview, with Private Wilkie, reveals Waters’s uncompromising standards: He demotes Wilkie because Wilkie was drunk on duty.

The next interview, with Private First Class Peterson, reveals more clearly Waters’s unreasonable expectations and his seemingly racist bias. Despite their winning an important baseball game, Waters orders his men to paint the officers’ club; when his men complain, he tells them, “I’m the kinda colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes!” His frustration and rage is especially directed at C. J. Memphis, a talented baseball player and a blues singer. When Melvin Peterson attempts to defend C. J., Waters challenges him to a fistfight, which is interrupted by Captain Taylor, who condescendingly compliments the men on their baseball game.

The interviews are diverted by a red herring: Taylor reveals to Davenport that two racist white officers, Byrd and Wilcox, were the last to see Waters alive. The audience is led to believe that Byrd and Wilson killed Waters. Because Taylor thinks that only he, as a white liberal, could prosecute whites for the murder of a black, he requests that Davenport be relieved of his duties. The interview with Byrd and Wilcox reveals the profound division in Waters’s spirit. Waters fully believed that by operating within a white supremacist’s definition of success, he himself could provide an example of African American achievement. Such commitment to the white power structure, however, took its toll by inducing in him a contempt for his own race: “I hate myself!,” Waters tells Byrd and Wilcox, yet when Waters says, “I’ve killed for you!” he discloses the clue that ultimately will solve the case for Davenport.

In his next interviews, Davenport discovers that an unforeseen consequence of Waters’s self-hatred was C. J.’s death. Waters, in his effort to cleanse the race of people he considers undesirable, had trumped up charges against C. J., provoking C. J. to assault him. When he is imprisoned in the stockade, C. J. despairs, again with Waters’s provocation, and commits suicide. Davenport realizes whom Waters had “killed”—C. J. The tension between Captain Taylor and Davenport then erupts: Taylor too wants to punish those responsible for Waters’s death, and the primary suspects are whites. Once again, he argues with Davenport over control of the case. When Davenport interviews Byrd and Wilcox again, however, he suddenly understands that neither murdered Waters. Davenport asserts his authority, and Taylor relents, allowing Davenport a free hand.

The final interview, with Private Smalls, reveals the mystery’s solution. Both Smalls and Peterson were on guard duty when Waters was...

(This entire section contains 720 words.)

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murdered, and Smalls confesses that he witnessed Waters’s murder. Peterson, enraged with Waters, had accused Waters of a racism as vicious as Adolf Hitler’s and Hideki Tojo’s. Drunken and filled with despair, Waters had told Peterson that it “doesn’t make any difference! They still hate you!” At that, Peterson had fired twice, killing Waters.

In the play’s denouement, Davenport discloses the men’s destiny: Peterson is captured and jailed, Waters’s murder is misreported, and the entire company is later killed in a surprise German advance. Davenport laments the split caused by “the madness of race in America.”

A Soldier's Play

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In A Soldier’s Play, Charles Fuller achieves the most powerful and coherent expression of the theme he initially developed in two earlier works, Zooman and the Sign (1980), which told the story of a contemporary black community’s cowardly refusal to name a murderer in its midst, and The Brownsville Raid (1976), which dramatized an actual incident of mass racial injustice in World War I. That theme is the destructive nature of racial hatred and injustice as it affects both blacks and whites. In A Soldier’s Play, Fuller’s focus is on the psychological self-destruction of the black man, particularly as embodied in the figure of the murder victim, Technical Sergeant Vernon Waters.

At the play’s beginning, Waters, very drunk, staggers out onto the almost darkened stage, where he is gunned down. Immediately before the fatal shots are fired, Waters can be heard mumbling: “They’ll still hate you! They still hate you . . . They still hate you”; the meaning and implications of these words are actually more important than the identity of Waters’ killer. Later in the play, Captain Richard Davenport, the investigating officer, asks “Who the hell was he?”; the answer to that question lies at the center of the play. Gradually, one realizes that Waters embodied all the tensions, complexities, and contradictions of the black man in the white man’s world, and that his death was the nearly inevitable result of those contradictions.

The job of formally investigating the killing—more than a month after it took place—is given to a black lawyer, Captain Davenport, who faces not only the usual racial barriers and hostilities but also the implacable opposition of the white company commander, as well as his own intense emotions and complex prejudices. Despite these obstacles, Davenport quickly establishes his authority and meticulously investigates the circumstances surrounding Waters’ death, ultimately discovering that the solution of the mystery lies not in any overt hatred for black soldiers in the white South, but in the enigmatic personality of the victim himself and in the tangled, volatile relationships among the black soldiers of the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company.

As the investigation progresses, the characters’ revelations trigger dramatic flashbacks that gradually make it possible to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. The notion that the “Klan did it” is never taken seriously by anybody. Two white officers are introduced as prime suspects, and it is determined that they assaulted the drunken sergeant on the night on which he was killed, but it seems increasingly unlikely that they committed the murder. What does emerge from the conflicting testimony is a portrait of a group of black men under enormous race-related pressures that have been made more intense by the war itself. That such pressures eventually explode in violence and that the violence is directed at one of their own seems not merely believable, but even inevitable.

The black soldiers of the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company represent a cross-section of character types and attitudes, the most interesting and important of which are revealed in Melvin Peterson, James Wilkie, and C. J. Memphis. Each of these men confronts Waters in a different way and each plays a significant role in his death. Peterson confronts him directly and defiantly, suffering a beating for his efforts. Wilkie, who has been “broken” by Waters from sergeant to private for drunkenness, is completely servile, even betraying a fellow soldier, in hopes of getting his stripes back. Memphis, the billet’s “innocent,” is unable to alter his behavior in order to please Waters and thereby incurs the sergeant’s wrath. This, in turn, begins the sequence of events that leads to Waters’ death.

Fuller has acknowledged that the relationship between Waters and Memphis is at least partially based on that between Claggart and Billy in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). Like Claggart, Waters goads his Billy Budd, C. J. Memphis, into an act of violence, an act which destroys both of them. With the connivance of Wilkie, Waters frames Memphis for a shooting he did not commit. The accusation drives the boy to strike his sergeant. Memphis is easily cleared of the shooting charge but is sentenced to the brig for assaulting the sergeant. Unable to stand the confinement, he hangs himself. It is his death, not Waters’, that is the play’s real catalyst.

Waters’ hostility toward his victim, however, is not simply an evil man’s hatred of the innocent; it is the product of Waters’ almost pathological obsession with the “image” of the black, an obsession forced upoon him by white society. At first, Waters seems to like and admire Memphis, a handsome black boy with impressive talents both as a baseball player and as a guitar-strumming blues singer, but these very talents are instrumental in turning Waters’ admiration into a deeply felt hostility. The more impressively Memphis exercises his natural abilities and pleases his white audiences, the more, in Waters’ view, he reinforces the image of the black man as a “singin’, clownin’, yassah-bossin’ . . . niggah.” As Waters gloatingly tells Memphis, after having coaxed the boy into the impulsive blow that sends him into the stockade:C. J. the black race can’t afford you no more. . . . Folks liked that—you were good—homey kinda niggah—they needed somebody to mistreat—call a name, they paraded you, reminded them of the old days—cornbread bakin’, greens and ham cookin’—Daddy out pickin’ cotton, Grandmammy sittin’ on the front porch smokin’ a pipe. . . . Not no more. The day of the geechy is gone, boy. . . . We can’t let nobody go on believin’ we all like you! You bring us down—make people think the whole race is unfit! . . . Now I got you—one less fool for the race to be ashamed of!

Waters is a man obsessed with succeeding in the white world, and the only avenue he can find is the Army. World War II, he believes, will provide the opportunity for his race to achieve a breakthrough, a belief that is shared in varying degrees by the other blacks, who wait expectantly for the “privilege” of fighting Hitler (the audience learns from Davenport’s bitterly ironic final report that they are all eventually killed while exercising this privilege). Waters’ dream is to send his children to “some big white college—let ’em rub elbows with the whites, learn the white man’s language—how he does things.” To pursue this dream, Waters tries with excessive rigidity to force his idealized image of the “respectable” black man onto his soldiers. More important, he systematically attempts to destroy those who will not or cannot conform to it, a group he refers to contemptuously as “geechies.” With C. J. Memphis, the attempt succeeds all too well.

Yet Memphis’ suicide also destroys Waters. Waters’ drunken run-in with the white officers, which preceded his murder, shows that his private vision had collapsed. Deliberately provoking white officers is an act of self-destruction. Even had he not been killed that evening, it is likely that his career would have been irreparably damaged.

It is in this context that those enigmatic last words—“They still hate you!”—become meaningful. Who is “they” and who is “you”? “They” clearly refers to the white Establishment and “you” to Waters in particular and the black man in general. No matter how much a black man, in or out of the Army, tries to act “white,” he will still be hated and despised, as much for his “success” in playing the role as for his failure. Yet “they” can also refer to the other blacks, those whom Waters tried to guide and lead by example and coercion, who ignored or rejected or failed to understand his vision. In the end, Waters puts himself at odds with both worlds, creating a limbo for himself in which, finally, he cannot survive. There are elements of the tragic in the fall of this black Army sergeant.

As Davenport investigates the facts surrounding Waters’ death, he is vigorously opposed by Captain Charles Taylor, the white company commander, and the conflict between these two develops into a potent dramatic counterpoint. Davenport is a tough, smart black lawyer with no illusions about the job he has been given. He knows that the investigation was authorized in response to political pressures and to avoid bad publicity. He is not expected to learn anything—if they thought he would, they would not have sent him. Nevertheless, he takes the job quite seriously and pursues it skillfully and vigorously, cajoling and intimidating his way to the truth. One of the delicious ironies in the play is the way in which Davenport manipulates the Army brass by threatening their professional vulnerabilities and their precarious self-images—by exploiting, in short, the same kinds of attitudes and fears in the white officers that had, in a more malignant form, destroyed Sergeant Waters. Davenport’s real test, however, comes when he understands the situation that provoked the murder and is faced with a hard choice between accepting the obvious and desired answer—the whites did it—or letting his doubts force him to continue the hunt for the truth, wherever it leads.

The white commanding officer, Captain Taylor, is an even more interesting character. The basis for his opposition to Davenport is more practical than racial. He believes that a black investigator will only play into the hands of those who would squelch the investigation altogether. At the same time, he does have racial prejudices, which he admits are the product of little contact with any race but his own. In their first meeting, he admits to Davenport that “you’re the first colored officer I’ve ever met,” and a few moments later he adds: “I don’t want to offend you, but I just cannot get used to it—the bars, the uniform—being in charge just doesn’t look right on Negroes!”

Taylor’s candor does not ingratiate him with Davenport, but it does reveal him to be an honest, direct man, capable of admitting personal weaknesses, but tenacious in doing what he thinks must be done. He is the one white officer whom Davenport cannot intimidate, because he has never been willing to play the “good officer” game. His motives for wanting to find Waters’ killer are emotional and practical. As the white commanding officer of a black unit, he is nervous about going into combat with men he does not understand. He believes that a conviction—of white officers—would give the men confidence in the white man’s justice and, more important, in him. Taylor also believes that his superior officers, who clearly want the incident forgotten, are mocking him by sending a black to conduct an investigation doomed to failure. He is certain that Byrd and Wilcox are guilty and feels an impotent rage that he can do nothing about it. When Davenport is able to force incriminating statements from the two men, Taylor jumps to the conclusion that they are guilty not merely of assault but also of murder. Almost gleefully, he demands immediate punishment.

At this point, the conflict between the two men reaches its ironical climax. Taylor, the white man, insists that the white officers should be charged with murder and dealt with severely. Davenport, the black man, who also wants to implicate the white men and knows that he could probably get away with it, has too many doubts, so he orders them released at some risk to himself—even though he knows that his search will probably pin the guilt on members of his own race and fuel the lies and distortions that produced the situation in the first place. Davenport’s final dedication, however, is to truth, not color. The question of whether his decision will lead to real justice is left open.

A Soldier’s Play was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Play

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The first act opens on a darkened stage with the murder of Sergeant Waters by a mysterious man holding a .45-caliber pistol. Drunk and trying to stand, Waters is mumbling “They’ll still hate you! They still hate you. . . !” when he is shot twice. His last words are symbolic of the play’s theme of the effects of the institutional racism rampant in the United States Army in the 1940’s and the self-hatred it often created in people living under its oppression.

The scene immediately shifts to the Company B barracks, where five African American enlisted men are being searched by Corporal Ellis, a black “spit-and-polish” soldier. Captain Charles Taylor, a white officer in his mid-to late thirties, watches the policelike search for weapons, worried that the murder of Waters might incite severe racial confrontations between members of Company B and local whites in the nearby town of Tynin. Those being searched are Corporal Bernard Cobb, a man in his mid-to late twenties; career soldier Private James Wilkie, a soldier in his early forties who has lost his stripes; Private Louis Henson, a thin man in his late twenties or early thirties; the angelic-looking Private First Class Melvin Peterson, a soldier in his late twenties who wears eyeglasses and has the most polished appearance; and Private Tony Smalls, a career soldier in his late thirties who “is as small as his name feels.”

Finding no weapons, Captain Taylor and Ellis then exit the barracks, leaving the men to discuss how, instead of being allowed to fight alongside white soldiers overseas, they have been stationed in the Deep South, essentially doing custodial work. They also discuss the Ku Klux Klan and Waters’s murder. Henson says, “I just hope we get lucky enough to get shipped outta’ this hell hole to the War”: A cutting commentary not only on the life of a black man in the American South at this time, but also on the reality of black American soldiers who will eventually be allowed to fight overseas for a freedom that they cannot experience at home.

Captain Taylor then meets Captain Richard Davenport, who will be investigating Waters’s murder. Captain Davenport is a very confident African American man with a degree in law from Howard University and the first “colored officer” that Captain Taylor has ever met. Even though he believes himself to be a liberal man who is concerned about his black troops even to the peril of his own career, Captain Taylor is very threatened by Captain Davenport’s rank, composure, and confidence.

As Captain Davenport begins to interview each soldier (with flashbacks accompanying each interview), the many facets of Waters’s character are revealed. From Private Wilkie, Captain Davenport learns about Waters’s unyielding standards as he demotes Wilkie for being drunk on duty and lectures him that his behavior provides ammunition for racist claims that blacks are untrustworthy.

The next interview with Private First Class Melvin Peterson begins to reveal Waters’s internalization of the racism he has dealt with all of his life, and how this racism created both a self-hatred and hatred of members of his own race. For instance, after winning another baseball game against the white soldiers, Waters tries to make the company paint the lobby of the Officers Club, a club they are not allowed to enter under normal circumstances. In response to his men’s protests, especially Peterson’s, Waters responds that he is the “kinda’ colored man that don’t like lazy, shiftless Negroes!” When Peterson later attempts to defend C. J. Memphis from Waters’s rage, he and Waters almost get into a physical fight just as Captain Taylor enters. It is apparent that C. J.’s boyish mentality, ball playing, and musical abilities bring out a violent response from Waters. Despite Waters’s request to the contrary, Captain Taylor relieves the men from painting duty and gives them some time off. Yet, after Captain Taylor leaves, Waters insists on fighting Peterson and beats him badly.

Peterson leaves and Captain Davenport then meets Captain Taylor. Taylor tells Captain Davenport that two racist officers, Byrd and Wilcox, were seen fighting with Waters outside the club for “colored” soldiers. He also tells Captain Davenport that he is working to get him off the case because he believes that only he, a white liberal officer, has a chance to bring these two to trial for murdering a black officer. In the flashback of Byrd and Wilcox’s interview with Captain Taylor, a drunken Waters mocks them, telling them that he is not going to listen to white people, do what they tell him to do, or try to be like them any more. Waters tells them, “Look what it’s done to me!—I hate myself!” and divulges a clue about what really happened when he says, “I’ve killed for you!”

In act 2, Captain Davenport interviews Private Louis Henson, who reveals that Waters was after C. J. Memphis, especially after the incident at the pay phone that resulted in two dead black soldiers and one dead white M.P. (military police). Wilkie finds the gun under C. J.’s bunk; Waters accuses C. J. of the crime, and C. J. denies any involvement in it. When he realizes what the consequences of being arrested for this could be, C. J. attempts to break free from the other soldiers, lunges at Waters, and knocks him down. He is restrained and put in the stockade.

In his next interview with Corporal Bernard Cobb, Captain Davenport learns that C. J. had relayed to Cobb that Waters had come to his cell and told him that he and Wilkie had caught the real murderer, but that Waters was going to let C. J. take the rap. The audience learns that Waters has developed his own plan to cleanse his race of black men like C. J., men whom he describes as “singin’, clownin’—yas-sah-bossin’” types who make white people believe “the whole race is unfit.” Distraught at what lies ahead of him, C. J. commits suicide. His suicide, though, impacts Waters on a deep psychological level and awakens him to what he has been willing to do to himself and others in his efforts to integrate into a racist white society.

Captain Davenport dismisses Cobb, and he and Captain Taylor begin talking about the case. Captain Davenport tells Captain Taylor he believes that Waters goaded C. J. into attacking him. They both arrive in Captain Taylor’s office where Captain Davenport interviews Byrd and Wilcox. After the interrogation, Captain Taylor wants to arrest the two, but Captain Davenport overrules him. He realizes that Waters’s earlier claim to have killed for white people was really about his “killing” of C. J.

Captain Davenport then returns to talk with Wilkie, where he learns about a racist incident that happened to Waters in France in World War I. This incident helped to develop the self-loathing and hatred of his own race that Waters carried with him to the end. During his talk with Wilkie, a celebration breaks out as the black troops learn they are finally going to be sent overseas to fight the Germans.

Captain Davenport goes on to meet Private Tony Smalls in the stockade, where he was placed for going absent without leave with Peterson. Smalls admits that they were running because they knew Davenport would figure out that Peterson had killed Waters while they were both on guard duty. Meeting with the drunken Waters after he was beaten by Byrd and Wilcox, Peterson had compared Waters to Adolf Hitler and Japanese war general Hideki Tojo, the racists they were supposed to be fighting overseas. In response, Waters tells the two that in order to succeed, they have to be like white people, even to sacrifice their own. Yet, he admits that despite his efforts, he could never fit in because the “rules are fixed.” No matter what he did, in the end, he says, “They still hate you!” Peterson then shoots Waters twice, killing him.

In the denouement, Captain Davenport describes how Peterson is caught and sent to prison, Waters is incorrectly reported as the first colored soldier killed in action, which elevates him to a hometown hero, and the rest of the outfit gets killed in a surprise German advance.

Dramatic Devices

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Creating this play as a mystery was an important strategy that allowed Fuller to use the interviews with the other characters as a means of slowly unraveling the complex Sergeant Waters. It also allowed the author to comment on American society and racism. Gary Storhoff, an African American literary critic, notes that the detective genre generally represents crime as an anomaly in a well-ordered society and that the solution of the crime therefore restores the proper social order and gives the audience a sense that justice has been restored. Yet in Fuller’s case, the typical detective-story pattern is reversed since Waters’s murder is, in fact, a logical extension of a society that is itself corrupt and unjust.

Another important element is the entire stage set, which Fuller designed to resemble a courtroom with several platforms at varying levels. On the right side of the stage near the barracks arrangement is a poster of boxing champion Joe Louis in military uniform. As Storhoff notes, this arrangement is symbolic not only of American society and justice on trial, but also is effective in demonstrating how a black superstar in the public world can become literally and figuratively a lowly private in the army.

Historical Context

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In 1981, when Charles Fuller wrote A Soldier’s Play, the United States military was fully integrated. In fact, the military services have been the largest equal opportunity employer of blacks for many years. But it was not always this way. Historically, blacks have been recruited into the military during wars but unceremoniously returned to civilian life once the war ended. World War II began in much the same way. For many blacks, there was no reason to want to involve themselves in this war. The experience in World War I had taught that once their services were no longer needed that blacks found they had gained nothing by their sacrifice. The freedoms they fought for were not theirs, and the country they defended rejected them. Consequently, many blacks saw World War II as a white man’s war, but some, like Sergeant Waters, saw the war as an opportunity to prove that blacks were as brave, as strong, and as accountable as any white soldiers. They reasoned that blacks could shoot a weapon, fly a plane, and kill a German as well as any white man, and they wanted a chance to prove it. They also saw the war as a means to wedge a crack into the segregation that still defined American life. If the military could be integrated, then maybe other areas of American life could be opened up, as well.

During both World War I and II, the army was completely segregated. Blacks were largely restricted to non-combat units, where they were responsible for basic duties that were mostly limited to labor and not combat. In other words, blacks were largely domestics, gardeners, mechanics, and handymen. Only a few blacks were permitted to join artillery units, and these units were also segregated so that blacks fought alongside blacks, and whites fought alongside whites. With the beginning of World War II, black community leaders pressured President Roosevelt to open up aviation schools to blacks. He responded by authorizing an aviation school for blacks, but it took a lawsuit against the War Department before blacks became members of the Army Air Corps. The black unit that was formed became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Initially no one wanted these black airmen, but eventually they found combat in North Africa and Italy where they distinguished themselves.

Toward the end of the war, black infantry units were sent to Germany, where they participated in the liberation of the concentration camps. It is difficult to imagine what they felt as these victims of American racism liberated the victims of Nazi racism in Europe. But when blacks returned to the United States after the war, they began to demand greater equality, especially in the military. This demand finally forced President Truman to sign an order that eventually led to the integration of the military, and for the first time ever, blacks would not be cashiered out of the military at war’s end. Instead, after the Korean War and Vietnam, blacks became a part of a peace-time military. Prior to World War II, integration had to be forced upon white America. In 1941, President Roosevelt had to order employers and unions to cease all discrimination again blacks. In particular, he emphasized that those companies that were awarded defense contracts must not discriminate. Race riots in 1943 among defense workers signaled that integration would not come easily. It did not come easily in the military either. Although World War II made it easier for blacks to integrate the military, much of that integration led to a greater proportion of black casualties during war. It would take many more years before blacks truly began to achieve a more equitable share of the military effort.

Literary Style

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Character A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. ‘‘Characterization’’ is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. Davenport is a black attorney, who divulges much about himself in the monologues that he uses to update the audience on the action that occurs between scenes. His character is revealed in other ways also, most notably in his confrontations with Taylor.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. A Soldier’s Play is a mystery.

Monologue A monologue is a speech given by a character and principally addressed to the audience. In a monologue, the character speaking is alone on stage, or thinks he is alone, and thus he speaks the truth. This device is a way for an author to relate to the audience that the speaker really thinks, rather than what he may be telling other characters. A monologue can also be used like a Greek Chorus—to give information about details that occur off stage or between acts or to comments upon action that has occurred. In A Soldier’s Play, Davenport uses a monologue to tell the audience that has occurred behind the scenes and what he is thinking.

Plot This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of A Soldier’s Play is the investigation into who killed Sergeant Waters. But the themes are racism and prejudice.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for A Soldier’s Play is an army post in the south. The cultural setting is racism and segregation and the division that occurred within the still segregated military.

Compare and Contrast

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1944he cost of living rises almost 30% in one year. For blacks, who already live at or below the poverty line, this inflation makes existence even more difficult.

1981: Inflation is so great that in an effort to help cut the budget, President Reagan orders that the school lunch program cut back on serving vegetables. In response, the Department of Agriculture declares that ketchup is a vegetable.

Today: The economy continues to grow, with unemployment low and the Dow Jones tops the 10,000 mark.

1944: Women become the backbone of the nations workforce, and the term ‘‘Rosie the Riveter’’ becomes the nickname for women who are now building the machines of war.

1981: Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman jurist on the U.S. Supreme Court

Today: While women appear to be equal members of the nations work force, the ‘‘glass ceiling’’ in many companies means that some women still earn only 70% of men’s salaries.

1944: Prior to the war, blacks had played baseball only in the Negro league. Baseball is curtailed temporarily during the war years; however, women’s baseball, The All-American Girls’ Baseball League, draws almost a million spectators. After the war ends, Jackie Robinson becomes the first black man to integrate professional baseball

1981: Baseball is fully integrated, with black players, such as Curt Flood of the St Louis Cardinals, helping to create free agency. However, women are still denied access to professional baseball.

Today: Some of baseball’s biggest stars, including Ken Griffey Jr., are black, but women are still excluded from major league baseball.

1944: There has been little opportunity for blacks during the war boom production. Where jobs have been plentiful, conflicts over housing and transportation have caused riots in several major U.S. cities.

1981: President Reagan’s social and economic programs hit blacks especially hard. Many AIDS victims are minorities, especially black drug users, and little effort is being made to fund research while the victims are largely black and Hispanic. Unemployment among blacks is at record levels and will climb to 45% in Los Angeles by the mid 1980s.

Today: Unemployment is low, but the surplus of jobs is largely in the lower salaried areas; in one area, professional sports, black athletes, such as Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods prove that blacks can achieve economic benefit from their athletic talents and escape the poverty that holds so many other blacks.

Media Adaptations

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In 1984, A Soldier’s Play was adapted for the screen from Fuller’s play as A Soldier’s Story. The movie starred many of the same actors from the theatrical production, including Adolphe Caesar, Denzel Washington, and Larry Riley. Howard Rollins, Wings Hauser, and David Alan Grier also starred. Norman Jewson directed the film, with a musical score by Herbie Hancock. The film won several awards, including the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Screenplay and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Supporting Actor (Adolphe Caesar). Academy Award nominations included Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Supporting Actor (Caesar). Columbia Tristar Video is the distributor or this 101 minute film.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Asahina, Robert. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 439-42.

Baraka, Amiri. ‘‘The Descent of Charles Fuller into Pulitzerland and the Need for African-American institutions,’’ in Black American Literature Forum Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 51-54.

Barnes, Clive. A review of A Soldier’s Play, in the New York Post, November 23, 1981.

Beaufort, John. A review of A Soldier’s Play, in The Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 1981

Carter, Steven R. ‘‘The Detective as Solution: Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play’’ in Clues Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring- Summer, 1991, pp. 33-42.

Demastes, William W. ‘‘Charles Fuller and A Soldier’s Play: Attacking Prejudice, Challenging Form,’’ in Studies in American Drama Vol. 2, 1987, pp. 43-56.

Hughes, Linda K. and Howard Faulkner. ‘‘The Role of Detection in A Soldier’s Play’’ in Clues Vol. 7, No. 2 Fall- Winter, 1986, pp. 83-97.

Kalem, T. E. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Time, January 18, 1982.

Kroll, Jack. A review of A Soldier’s Play in Newsweek, December 21, 1981.

Rich, Frank. A review of A Soldier’s Play in The New York Times, November 27, 1981.

Watt, Douglas. A review of A Soldier’s Play in the Daily News, November 25, 1981.

Wilson, Edwin. A review of A Soldier’s Play in The Wall Street Journal, February 26, 1982.

Further Reading Cooper, Michael L. The Double V Campaign: African Americans and World War II, Lodestar Books, 1998. This book is designed for adolescents, ages 9-12. Cooper describes the problems black soldiers faced as they fought two wars, one against a foreign enemy and one against racism in the United States.

Dryden, Charles W. A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman, University of Alabama Press, 1997. This is a personal account of Dryden desire to be a pilot during World War II and how his belief in himself helped him to succeed.

Harriott, Esther, ed. American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, McFarland & Company, 1988, pp. 112-125. In this 1982 interview, Fuller discusses his work and the process of adapting A Soldier’s Play to film.

Hay, Samuel A. African American Theatre: A Historical and Critical Analysis, Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama, Cambridge University Press, 1994. Traces the history of Black theatre from its origin as 19th-century social protest.

Sandler, Stanley. Segregated Skies: All-Black Combat Squadrons of WW II, Smithsonian History of Aviation Series, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992. This is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, as told by a military historian, who recounts the story behind the formation of the squadron and their role in the war.


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Bygrave, Mike. “A Soldier’s Story.” Sight and Sound 54 (Winter, 1984/1985): 17-19. Discusses the problems involved with producing the 1984 film. Includes insightful comments by Fuller about his experiences with racism.

Hill, Errol G., and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Exhaustive history of African American drama, organized broadly into eras. Places Fuller within his larger literary and dramatic context.

Kunz, Don. “Singing the Blues in A Soldier’s Story.” Literature Film Quarterly 19, no. 1 (1991): 27-34. Focuses on the film’s score. Kunz argues that the film reproduces the play and that both affirm racial progress in American society.

Peterson, Bernard L. Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Contains useful factual information on Fuller’s career. Bibliography, indexes.

Sanders, Leslie Catherine. The Development of Black Theater in America: From Shadows to Selves. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Provides a helpful context for interpreting Fuller’s work.

Storhoff, Gary. “Reflections of Identity in A Soldier’s Story.” Literature Film Quarterly 19, no. 1 (1991): 21-26. Examines the reflection trope that organizes both film and play. In contrast to Kunz, Storhoff argues that the film oversimplifies the play and compromises its artistic integrity.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide