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...

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A Soldier's Play

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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

(Drama for Students)

In 1981, when Charles Fuller wrote A Soldier’s Play, the United States military was fully integrated. In fact, the military services have...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the role of black soldiers in World War II. Blacks did not fare well after the end of World War I; in view of this experience, what...

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Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Charles Fuller’s The Brownsville Raid (1976) examines a 1906 incident that resulted in the dishonorable discharge of 167 black...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

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

(The entire section is 416 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 205 words.)