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...
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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.