A Soldier’s Play explores the corrosive effects of racism by focusing on the tragedy of one man, Sergeant Vernon C. Waters. Although he has distinguished himself in World War I and has risen in the ranks by his own effort and against an entrenched racism, his vision of himself extends far beyond his own career. His action reflects another purpose, one grander than simple personal success: Waters has taken upon himself the role of savior of all African Americans in a racist society. Like Hamlet, Waters takes it upon himself to set things right. Waters’s sinister side, however, is that he attempts to eliminate any black he considers inferior. By dramatizing the story of Waters, Fuller creates a powerfully moving tragedy.
Waters’s identity as tragic hero is revealed to the audience slowly, through Fuller’s use of the mystery plot vehicle. The investigating officer, Captain Richard Davenport, conducts a series of interviews in which characters summarize incidents involving Waters. Complicating the understanding of Waters is the fact that the soldiers interviewed themselves do not understand him. Wilkie, the first soldier interviewed, respects Waters because he earned his rank and is faithful to his wife and children; the second, Peterson, despises Waters because he sees him as a black bigot. The whites are even more divided on Waters: Captain Taylor thinks of him as a simpleton who does his job adequately, but the two bigots, Byrd and Wilcox, are threatened by his “uppityness.” Racial stereotypes continually interfere with the characters’ perceptions. The audience must infer Waters’s character with Davenport as the guide; Davenport acts as a chorus, explaining the action while being involved in it.
The actual Waters, as disclosed in composite, is a failed idealist, a messianic African American who wants the best for his race but is uncertain about how to achieve it. “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war,” he tells Wilkie. Waters’s tragedy is a consequence of his terrible miscalculation, his fateful error in judgment. Because he is convinced that “the only thing that can move the race is power,” and that empowerment means becoming white, he chooses to deny his own racial identity and emulate white racists. This choice, however, commits him to a power dynamics that conceives only of the oppressed and the oppressor. If he accepts the assumptions of black inferiority from a racist society, his purpose is doomed to failure. Unable to relate to his men as brothers, he transforms them into objects to be rescued; Waters willingly destroys their self-respect and integrity in order to save them. His vision is clouded by his purpose until the end of his life. His own words “They still hate you!” begin and end the play, testifying to his own recognition that he has failed both himself and his race.
Waters is a sympathetic character because he suffers deeply over the wrongs committed against him and his race. More sensitive than other characters, he has withheld his rage, choosing instead to direct it, he supposes, against a vicious system that denies him his humanity. Ironically, his actions redound against him and his men, for his efforts to inspire them to achievement only alienate them and make them despise him. Even more important, he is alienated from himself; as C. J. says, “I feel kinda sorry for him myself. Any man ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain.” C. J., whom Waters victimizes relentlessly, knows Waters best of all. Waters tells C. J., “Them Nazis ain’t all crazy—a whole lot of...
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people just can’t fit into where things seem to be goin’—like you, C. J. The black race can’t afford you no more.” His unconscious use of a mercantile vocabulary, as if some human beings were more “costly” than others, summarizes where he went wrong in trying to help African Americans.
C. J. provides an alternative mode of consciousness to Waters’s dichotomous vision of the races. Waters hates C. J. because C. J. represents what Waters thinks blacks must abandon to achieve success: southern roots, African American spiritualism, and the blues (Waters himself listens only to symphonies). The play shows that C. J. accepts his own identity; he is unashamed of his dialect, his music, his beliefs, and his background. Fuller places C. J. at the center of historical African American self-expression by making him a blues singer, and his songs inevitably draw a response from the company. His baseball heroics also function as an affirmation of community, for he is a true team player. In C. J., then, Fuller advocates pluralism, the acceptance of diversity as good in itself and as the only solution to the “madness of race in America.”
The murderer, Peterson, is a fully developed character, though he appears onstage only momentarily. Peterson, like the other soldiers, misunderstands Waters as the “new boss—shoutin’, orderin’ people aroun’.” Peterson does not see that Waters is a reflection of his own hidden self. Although Waters is equally demanding of everyone, it is Peterson who kills him, for Peterson senses his connection with Waters. Like Waters, Peterson tries to conceal his southern roots, preferring to call Hollywood, not Alabama, his home; his ambition to rise in the Army (his early enlistment reveals his illusions) mirrors Waters’s own. Finally, Peterson, like Waters, insults C. J. “Justice,” Peterson says as he kills Waters. The murder, though, is his symbolic self-destruction, Peterson executing his own despised, hidden identity.
The white Captain Taylor also presents a complex, though economical, character study. Taylor represents the white liberal, pragmatic in his pursuit of justice. His unconscious racial prejudice is revealed when he meets Davenport, since he admits he cannot accept blacks in positions of authority. Thus, Taylor assumes that Davenport will fail in his investigation, and that he should allow Taylor to take control. The play suggests that liberal pragmatists, though well-meaning, may be as much a hindrance to racial justice as southern bigots are.
As chorus, Davenport represents an ideal in the play. He is an oracular commentator, narrating the action from a detached and Olympian perspective, but he also understands C. J.’s dislocation, Waters’s misguided quest, and Peterson’s rage. He derives self-definition from his profession, but he is not limited by it; he symbolizes in his character the acceptance of diversity that the play itself promotes.
Fuller’s use of the detective form to dramatize a tragedy is itself worthy of consideration. The detective genre usually represents crime as an aberration in a well-ordered society (often the crime occurs in an isolated setting). The solution to the crime, a result of the detective’s rationality applied to evidence, assumes the restoration of a benign social order, and justice reasserted reassures the audience.
Fuller, however, reverses the typical detective-story pattern. The crime, Waters’s murder, is in fact a logical extension of a society that is itself corrupt and unjust. That men must suffer for the color of their skins renders ironic America’s war against Hitler’s Final Solution and Tojo’s race-consciousness. Although the setting is isolated, Fuller makes clear that racism is institutionalized throughout America.
Fuller’s use of the stage is also highly inventive. The entire set resembles a courtroom, implying that the play is in reality an interrogation of American justice. Dominating the set is a poster of boxing champion Joe Louis—as a private. The implication is that even black superstars have a very low ceiling in the segregated Army.
Like many of his other works, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play shows the devastating effect racism has both psychologically and physically on its victims and perpetrators. Fuller’s goal is to expose both overt racist behaviors and beliefs, and those that are so ingrained in the culture that they are taken for granted.
In an interview with George Goodman of The New York Times, Fuller describes how the themes in his work (and the work of other African American writers in the early 1980’s) were shifting from “focusing on our problems with whites, to matters involving blacks as human beings.” Instead of depicting simple confrontations between blacks and whites, Fuller was “concerned about how racism affects blacks in their dealing with each other rather than as victims of a larger plot by whites. I want to explore the internal psychological effects of racism.”
Fuller is also concerned about showing black men as complex humans instead of simplistic stereotypes. As the audience sees from the various interviews with the other characters, Waters is a black man with a Messiah complex, determined to save blacks from a racist American society; yet he is willing to sacrifice some of them to accomplish this goal. In the process he denies his own culture and loses his identity. C. J. is a threat to him because, by maintaining strong connections to his cultural traditions and music, C. J. maintains his identity in the face of adversity. As C. J. says about Waters, “I feel kinda’ sorry for him myself. Any man ain’t sure where he belongs, must be in a whole lotta’ of pain.” Fuller, in a 1999 interview with N. Graham Nesmith, notes thatMy concern throughout my work has been to depict African-Americans, especially African-American men, not as the stereotypes we have seen for years, but as we see ourselves. We live lives that are interesting, exciting. My struggle all these years has been to do nothing more than to change how people see us, and in doing so perhaps change how we see ourselves.
Alienation The alienation that black soldiers feel is best demonstrated by the baseball games that are played between white and blacks. The black soldiers view the baseball games as one area where they can prove superiority over white soldiers. The blacks are treated as subservient and subordinate underlings. They are not given the opportunity to be real soldiers; instead they function as little more than servants, handymen, garbage collectors, and gardeners. When these same black soldiers meet white soldiers on the baseball field, the game makes them equal, and when the black team wins, they are superior. Black soldiers emerge from the games knowing that they will be alienated and punished for winning, but their victory makes the alienation more tolerable.
Anger & Hatred Although he disguises it, Waters really hates what he is—a black man, a black soldier in the army. He is so consumed with self-hatred that he turns it upon the men in his company. Waters is given power over other men; it is a power given by whites and largely controlled by whites, but Waters thinks that if he can do the job well, that he can change the white perception of the black man. So he is harder on his men and crueler than a white officer would be, and he tries to eliminate those blacks that he thinks would be unable to compete in a white man’s world. Waters sees black survival in becoming white. He hates his own black race and his history, and he turns that hatred upon his men, ultimately being responsible for the death of one of them.
Betrayal Waters betrays his men, especially C.J., when he plants evidence that implicates the young man in a crime. The sole purpose in framing C.J. is to remove him from the company. But Waters has befriended C.J., praising his singing and playing. The reality is that Waters hates all southern blacks, whom he considers fools who are perpetuating an image of black foolishness with their singing, dancing, and clowning around. C.J. is guilty of all these actions, and in his innocence, he never suspects Waters of betrayal.
Prejudice Captain Davenport faces prejudice when he arrives at a southern military post to conduct his investigation into Waters’s death. When Captain Taylor meets Davenport, the latter is told that the white community will not tolerate a black man investigating whites. But that is not the only reason for Taylor’s concern. Taylor admits that in a conversation with other white officers, most admitted they did not want to serve with black officers and could not accept blacks as equals. Indeed, when Davenport finally interviews two white officers, Byrd and Wilcox, Byrd makes clear his distaste for the black captain. Byrd also admits that he beat Waters because the sergeant did not treat him with the respect he deserved as an officer and as a white man.
Racism Racism is the source for the violence that occurs at this army post. Although there are many black soldiers, they are not welcome in the predominately white community that surrounds the post. When Waters’s murder is discovered, initial suspicion falls on the local Ku Klux Klan, who have been responsible for attacks on black soldiers in the past. There is a clear division on the post as well, with the white officers and soldiers aligned against the blacks. The black soldiers feel that if they can only get overseas and into the war, they can prove that they are as good at killing Hitler’s men as are the white soldiers. And finally, there is racism within the black community, also. Waters is guilty of racism when he turns on C.J., whose only crime is that he is from the south and represents the type of black man who Waters thinks is holding back other blacks.
Violence Violence was too often the result of confrontations between whites and blacks. When Waters is murdered, suspicion first falls on white men, notable the Ku Klux Klan. But violence is also Waters primary way of dealing with difference. Waters identifies rural southern blacks as a hindrance to black advancement. He thinks that their singing and dancing recalls a period of ignorance and subservience that prevents blacks from achieving equality with whites. Rather than look for a way to overcome this problem, Waters seeks a solution in violence. Rather than educate these blacks, Waters has them jailed and placed in a prison population where violence becomes a means of survival; C.J.’s imprisonment leads to his death.