Shutdown Spotlight: Pulitzer-Prize Winning A Soldier’s Play on Broadway

When Broadway shut down on March 12, it closed the chapter on a truly remarkable season. In this series, we’re taking a look back at the shows that were thriving and thrilling audiences when the shutdown began. Like you, we can’t wait to see them back on the boards. After all, it’s #onlyintermission.

More than 35 years after winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play is at long last headed to Broadway. The cast is led by a pair of veteran stage and screen stars — three-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier and two-time Golden Globe nominee Blair Underwood — in a production helmed by Tony Award–winning director Kenny Leon, known both for his revivals of classics such as A Raisin in the Sun and Fences as well as for ambitious new works.

Grier first saw the Negro Ensemble Company’s production of A Soldier’s Play back in the early ’80s, he remembers. “One of the real joys was that it was rare to see a play with a predominantly African American cast where each one of the characters was on a different page — politically, ethically, culturally, morally,” he says. “So much of the time back then, you had one person of color as a token character, speaking for the entire race. In A Soldier’s Play, you have all different points of view, and everybody thinks they’re right.”

The actor wound up joining the company, which then included rising stars such as Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, and he scored a role in the 1984 Oscar-nominated film adaptation, A Soldier’s Story. In the new staging, he is cast as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, who tyrannizes the young black soldiers who serve under him, and whose murder leads to a racially fraught investigation led by Underwood’s character, Captain Richard Davenport. Grier describes his new role, introduced on stage and screen by Adolph Casear, as “iconic. I loved watching Adolph work, and working with him. That character is just juicy, man. Not one word is wasted on him.” However abusive Waters is toward his men, tormenting them for embodying what he sees as negative stereotypes, “it becomes evident that it’s the sarge who is the ultimate victim. He is tortured and brought down by his own self-hatred.”

That aspect intrigued Grier, a Yale School of Drama graduate widely known for his diverse work as an actor and comedian, who broke out on the TV sketch series In Living Color. He was drawn to it at a time when discussions about race focus on outside bigotry and self-empowerment. “You’re not even allowed to explore the possibility of a lot of these feelings” that haunt Waters, Grier notes. “Imagine going on social media with them. And they bring about such destruction.”

Leon, who spoke with Fuller while preparing to stage the production, notes, “The sad fact is, a lot of people of color served in the military and made the greatest sacrifice you can make, while not being able to walk in the country as their free selves. We’re still dealing with people at the border, with ideas of what it means to be patriotic, and why black sports figures can’t kneel [when the national anthem is played]. Basically, what [Fuller] was trying to say is that institutional racism is a poison that goes deep into the community and can go back into a person, and we have to at some point deal with our original sin — that slavery happened.”

The director points out that Underwood, who made his Broadway debut as Stanley Kowalski in a 2012 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, “comes from a military family, so he understands the sacrifice made by all people who give themselves to the military, but especially by people of color.” Indeed, Underwood says his “greatest source of research” for the production “is my life and my relationship with my father,” now a retired officer. “One time, someone with a lower rank than him, who happened to be Caucasian, walked by and begrudgingly saluted. And my dad checked him. The way my father and parents raised us — me, my brother, and my two sisters — was to truly lead with our humanity.”

For Underwood, Soldier’s Play resonates as “a very specific, acute look into the dynamics of race, and how every element and aspect of race affects how we not only see ourselves, but how we see the world around us.” He notes that many roles earlier in his career “were asking me to lead with my race. And now, because of the public and political discourse, people are acutely aware of our differences more than our commonalities. Because of that, a play like this — which is enlightening and reminds the audience of our humanity — is vital.”

Grier admits he was surprised when Leon, with whom he had previously worked on The Wiz Live! and the telefilm The Watsons Go to Birmingham, told him that Soldier’s Play had never been produced on Broadway before. “There have been a couple of revivals that were pretty prestigious, and maybe that precluded a Broadway production. But I feel like this play should be in the canon, with plays like Fences.”

Asked if he will look for opportunities, while digging into his character’s troubled psyche, to inject his own comedic prowess, Grier says the play’s “moments of levity or comedy are dark and organic. But they’re there to be explored and revealed, and I’m not going to shy away from any of that.” He’s confident that Leon will push him to do his best work: “I have to have those other eyes that trust to guide me, to say, ‘You’re missing this part,’ without pulling punches. I need to hear that in plain speak, and that’s what I admire about Kenny.”

What Grier admires about A Soldier’s Play, though, is its nuance. “It seems to me that, with politics especially, we’re living in a very black-and-white world,” he says. “This play is the antithesis of that. There’s all kinds of gray in between. That’s what a discussion is: where an argument is black-and-white, a discussion explores all the different aspects. And that’s what A Soldier’s Play, and Charles Fuller’s writing, is all about.”

Underwood, too, feels this production couldn’t be timelier. “Even when we point fingers and we blame the ‘others’ — and there’s a lot of that going on in our society right now, with people who look different than us, who believe differently than us, who love differently than us — there are usually very deep and profound and complex reasons for that. What Charles Fuller has written is a play that really uncovers and mines all the human beings featured in it.”

Learn More About A Soldier’s Play