The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a vital institution located at W 135th Street, opened its Winter 2020 season with “Theater Talks: A Soldier’s Play.” The panel was moderated by NYU associate professor, playwright, and dramaturg Michael Dinwiddie and featured panelists who included Broadway director Kenny Leon, and show stars David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood. Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play” is being presented at the American Airlines Theatre on W. 42nd Street and is a Roundabout Theatre production. Opening on Dec. 27, it will play through March 15, 2020.
It was wonderful to be in the audience of this free event and witness Dinwiddie asking Leon, who is nothing less than a brilliant director—about working on this project. Then to also hear extraordinary actors Grier and Underwood talk about this very meaningful, well-known and well-loved play. Grier portrays Sergeant Vernon C. Waters and Underwood, Captain Richard Davenport—the lawyer who tries to find out who murdered Sergeant Waters.
Dinwiddie started the panel off with humor asking his panelist what they have done that they are not proud of. Grier recalled, “I was a grape in the Fruit of the Loom commercials.” The audience burst into laughter. Leon shared that he was in the “Heat of the Night” three times and he was killed three times. Dinwiddie had everyone laughing when he shared that People magazine named Leon one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world.
Dinwiddie asked Leon why he chose “A Soldier’s Play” now? “As Black artists we have a responsibility to go back and make work fresh for a new generation. I met the playwright last year in Canada, he’s 83 years old, he won a Pulitzer Prize, I said, Mr. Fuller, why this play? What do you want the audience to feel? Anger. I’m still angry. I’m angry because I served in the army, many of my buddies died in the army and you still can’t walk through America as your true authentic self. From that moment I said I’m going to design a production that honors that. So when you see, this production, it’s not like just recreating what was done by the Negro Ensemble Company in the early ’80s and we’re honoring that because we couldn’t be where we are without them. But, here you’ll look at it through the lens of 2020. It’s written in 1980, took place in 1944, but you see it now. Sitting there you see what’s happening in the world now, young men being killed in their cars, the unjust things happening in the military.”
Grier had been in the Negro Ensemble Company’s production and played C.J. Memphis. He talked about seeing the production and recalled “what was amazing about this play is that you had different Black men, all shapes and sizes and most importantly different voices, different political points of view, it was amazing.”
Addressing Underwood, Dinwiddie stated that he comes from a military family, with his Dad being in the service. What about that did he bring to the role? “I watched my Dad, be my Dad and then put on his military uniform and be a naval officer. Taking on this role, I saw my Dad just sitting in the backyard and chilling, but when he put on the uniform he was different, in the military it’s about how you walk, how you talk,” Underwood recalled.
Dinwiddie asked did anything about the role remind you of your father. “Yes, it’s about fighting for the respect. Everyone was fighting for the respect—Black men and women of the United States armed forces fight for respect. Double D Day is when we fight for the United States and we fight for respect abroad,” Underwood said.
Talking about how the panelists’ started their careers in the ’80s, Dinwiddie asked how the business has changed. Grier said that he came up in a time when Richard Pryor was No. 1 at the box office, then it was Eddie Murphy. “But today you have a bunch of Black men and women who are doing beautiful work,” Grier said.
Leon stated that politics has always played a part for him. He also said that people ask him doesn’t he want to be known as more than a Black director and he stated, “I get offended by that. I want to tell other stories, but I also want to do Black folk. We have to be the custodians of our stories. When I do stories, it’s different. If I do ‘Fences,’ it’s different, when I do ‘Much Ado’ in the park, it’s going to look different.” To this the audience burst into applause, cheers and approval.
Talking about the limited opportunities to bring shows to Broadway, Leon broke it down about the number of Broadway theaters there are, the number that have musicals, others that have long-running shows and the fact that there are very few people who decide what shows get on Broadway. He said this as he discussed how often actors come to him and say, “I want to do Broadway”.
Leon was saying that his grandmother told him, “Wherever you go, be yourself,” and that’s what he tries to do. He wears tennis shoes no matter what’s he’s wearing—a suit or where he’s going—a funeral, because it keeps him grounded and remembering he’s just a negro from Tallahassee, Florida. “Be yourself and that’s enough. I represent her,” Leon said.
Discussing the storyline Dinwiddie talked about how Blacks are against Blacks in “A Soldier’s Play” and how that is hard for people to accept. “The play is very emotional because of the Black-on-Black crime and the realization that there is self-hatred. We work so hard to love ourselves and others. To take ourselves wherever we go and it’s painful when we turn it in. That’s a challenge that we have to work on and that is seen in this play…To do our story is rich, but it’s coming home.
Regarding Black rage, Grier talked about the research he did for the role. “During the war the Black and white soldiers fired on each other on U.S. soil and some of that is in here,” Grier shared. “‘A Soldier’s Play’ is a classic tragedy. You don’t get out alive. The mind trip of the play forces us to confront our own self-hatred,” he continued.
Dinwiddie said, “You feel it, you understand it. It’s about how we perceive ourselves and how we exist in our society.” “At the end of the play, the crime is solved, but it’s like ripping the scab off,” Underwood remarked.
Leon talked about the production. “In this production we have 12 actors and I can’t find a weak actor in it and they’ve all decided they would follow me up this hill.” The other cast members include: Jerry O’Connell; Rob Demery; Nnamdi Asomugha; Warner Miller; McKinley Belcher III, Billy Eugene Jones; Jared Grimes; J. Alphonse Nicholson; Nate Mann; and Lee Aaron Rosen. The “Theater Talks” ended with the capacity audience getting to ask questions about everything from when and how the actors realized when they wanted this career to audience members questioning some of Leon’s discussions as the play’s director.
It was an evening of community, laughter, sharing and enlightenment. The Schomburg is an amazing place and offers so many free events to the community. The Roundabout Theatre production has set design by Derek McLane, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. For tickets go to Roundabouttheatre.org or call 212-719-1300.