As Racial Tensions Rise, Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” Stands Army Strong

Chatting with Charles Weldon, artistic director of the legendary Negro Ensemble Company.

Fulton Hodges as Pvt. James Wilkie and Chaz Reuben as Capt. Richard Davenport. Photo: Kamoier Williams.

Consider this scenario: At a segregated US Army base during World War II, a Black Sergeant has been murdered and a Black Captain is sent to investigate. The Sergeant was tyrannical — and disgusted with his fellow Black soldiers, particularly those from the rural South. The unit is comprised of former Negro League players; their playing against white soldiers has made them so popular that they might play an exhibition game against the Yankees. For now, though, they’re assigned to menial jobs. At first, the Sergeant’s murder appears to have been the work of the local KKK. However, when the true murderers are found, unsettling divisions among the troops are revealed — along with the kind of anger and resentment that curiously mimics white racist attitudes.

Does that sound like something that could be written today, with the resurgence of right-wing racism in America? It wasn’t — it the theme and plot of Charles Fuller’s great play A Soldier’s Play, which stormed Off-Broadway in 1981. Produced by the legendary Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), the play starred numerous actors then not well known, including one young fellow named Denzel Washington. A Soldier’s Play ran at Theatre Four (now the Julia Miles) for 468 performances. Fuller scooped up the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, becoming only the second African-American playwright up to that time to be so honored. (The first was Charles Gordone, for No Place to be Somebody, in 1970.) A Soldier’s Play won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, and an Obie Award for Distinguished Ensemble Performance.

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Last year, the culmination of NEC’s 50th anniversary season was a superlative revival of A Soldier’s Play, this one directed by Charles Weldon, who 12 years ago succeeded company co-founder Douglas Turner Ward as artistic director. Given the intense audience interest in the play, in 2017 run, at Theatre 80 St. Marks, has transferred to the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St.), through March 4. (Click here for tickets.)

Weldon acted in A Soldier’s Story at the Mark Taper Forum in LA in 1983, along with much of the original NYC cast. The 2017-18 cast is: Gilbert Tucker, Layon Gray, P.J. Max, Horace Glasper, Buck Hinkle, Derek Dean, Jay Ward, Arron Lloyd, Adrain Washington, Fulton Hodges, Aaron Sparks and Jimmy Gary, Jr. Their 1981 counterparts were: Adolph Caesar, Charles Brown, Brent Jennings, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Friedman, Cotter Smith, Eugene Lee, James Pickens, Jr., Denzel Washington, Steven A. Jones, Stephen Zettler and Larry Riley.

There is an excellent bio for Weldon here, detailing what has been an exceptional career on both stage and screen, and whose stewardship of NEC has the company poised for another half-century of theater.

Below are excerpts, lightly edited, from our CFR interview with Weldon.

How does someone get from singing a 1960s doo-hop hit to leading the golden anniversary celebrations of a legendary theater company?

I refer to myself as the “Unlikely Actor.” I was born on a small Indian reservation in Wetumka, OK. At two years old, my family moved to Bakersfield, CA, where I was raised. I never thought of it before I was on stage — when I graduated from high school, I was singing with “The Paradons” — we had one big hit song, “Diamonds and Pearls,” with some of the biggest names in the music business. While I was living and working in a nightclub in northern California, my big sister Ann talked me into auditioning for a musical play directed by Oscar Brown, Jr. And as they say, the rest is history.

Then I came to NYC with that same musical play when Mohammad Ali decided to do the lead role on Broadway. It was called Big Time Buck White. After it closed I was told that something called the Negro Ensemble Company was auditioning actors for a musical. I got the part — this was in 1970.

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What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

The question I get most is “Where did you study acting?” My answer is “on the stage” with some of the greats: Esther Rolle, Roscoe Lee Brown, Adolph Caesar, Douglas Turner Ward, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, to name a few.

What’s the most idiotic or weird question anyone has asked you about your work?

The weirdest question I get now is why it is that a play that was such a big hit in the 1980s should turn into such a success now. All I can say is timing — with what is happening in the US politically, A Soldier’s Play feels relevant now.

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Given how indelible the original performances were, are there casting challenges — or pitfalls? How do you make sure you’re not in search of the next Denzel Washington or Adolph Caesar but the next “right actor” for each character?

The challenge I had in casting was whether I could get the kind of talent that was in the original show. That was my thought as I auditioned close to 400 actors.

If A Soldier’s Play wasn’t fiction — but about a real unit, where the action and characters are absolutely real, would anything be substantially different in real life, versus the play? And if you could choose to be, in real life, any character from the play and, indeed, live their life, which character would you pick and why?

I really have sat here and tried to think about which of these characters I would be if, for whatever reason, I could be that character, and I think Davenport, the Black Captain. It was before there were Black officers in this man’s army, so it would be because of his drive and his tenacity.