Hidden Stages Chicago

Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning play begins with the death of a black man in Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944. But what the Army would like to dismiss as a lynching turns out to be far more complicated, as Fuller gracefully, relentlessly unwinds a string of injustices and intolerance in the segregated army of World War II.

The U.S. Armed Forces may have evolved somewhat in the last 50 years, but the whole gays-in-the-military issue points out that it will never be an institution associated with forward thinking or generosity toward minorities. Still, it’s a shock to hear Fuller’s Captain Taylor, a white officer in command of a black troop, greet the protagonist, Captain Davenport, who’s come to investigate the soldier’s death, with an apology for staring. “You’re the first colored officer I’ve ever met,” he explains. “You’re a bit startling.” Later he says, “Being in charge just doesn’t look right on Negroes.”

But the playwright knows better than to make Taylor an evil man–he’s merely a soldier, and evidence suggests a pretty good one. And his concern that the investigation by a black officer into the death of a black technical sergeant will not be very successful in this small Louisiana post is a valid one. Davenport has overcome greater obstacles, however, as his rank indicates. This tenacious lawyer specifically assigned to police black troops discovers an insidious intolerance that’s not limited to white officers: it grows in the midst of the black barracks. But it springs from the conservative heart of the white man’s army.

Fuller’s play is a terrific ensemble piece even under the most adverse conditions–such as the loft space at Hidden Stages. Though it’s obvious the company has labored mightily to create a workable theater, it’s just as obvious that they have a long way to go. Most of the action takes place on a high platform, which makes for a crowded and awkward staging. Some of the taller performers are in danger of hitting their heads on a ceiling beam. The lighting (which Fuller relies on to define time and place) is so primitive that no lighting designer is named in the program.

But the ensemble offer some energetic, natural, and thoughtful performances under Donn Carl Harper’s direction. El Fiego, with a voice like a mellifluous foghorn, is a mature, commanding presence as the murdered sergeant (seen in flashback) who takes it on himself to winnow out the “geechies” from his race, and Lou Johnson is endearing as the unfortunate C.J., the soldier who draws the sergeant’s fury for “bowin’ and scrapin’ and smilin’ in everybody’s face.” Michael T. Kachingwe and Josh Stamberg as Davenport and Taylor develop a fine rapport based on the characters’ mutual frustration with the situation and grudging respect for each other.

A Soldier’s Play comes across as beautifully now as it did 12 years ago. Sadly, it seems to have a long shelf life.