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...