The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 720 words.)