Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720
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...
(The entire section contains 6604 words.)
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