Black and Brown and Blue All Over

A Soldier's Play is too at-ease, Two Sisters sparkles

Lights up. A bare stage on which a beaten and bloodied black man in Army uniform rests on all fours. Mad drunk, he staggers to his feet, mumbling: "They'll still hate you. They'll still hate you. They still hate you!" He laughs. An unseen hand points a pistol at his head. The gun fires, knocking him backward.

So begins Charles Fuller's 1982 A Soldier's Play, the play that became the movie A Soldier's Story (starring a very young Denzel Washington), which marked one of the first pop-culture examinations of racism in the U.S. military during World War II. But Fuller's play wasn't provocative so much for its historical revisionism-by then, what American could be anything but willfully ignorant of the fact that black and Japanese men fighting racist regimes in Europe and the South Pacific were subject to institutionalized racism in the military? No, A Soldier's Play was notable for its depiction of a black man whose self-hatred is part of the savage dialectic of American racism.

In American theater, Fuller's proud, arrogant and ashamed Technical Sergeant Vernon C. Waters was a man with few precedents and helped earn Fuller the Pulitzer Prize. Most theater works (consider Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West and the most didactic works of August Wilson) treat racism as a simple product of white America. In those works, blacks are not masters of their fates, but rather mere victims. That's why Fuller's Sergeant Waters, the mean-spirited man whose murder sparks a military investigation, remains such a potent symbol. He reflects both black pride and black self-hatred, a combustible dynamic that can't help but result in tragedy.

Waters is a man so sick of oppression that he lashes out at other African-Americans in a wicked cycle of racist violence and retribution that gives this play its intellectual ballast. No one, black or white, walks away completely exonerated.

The problem with this Long Beach Playhouse production is that it's difficult to walk away from the theater with anything but the most superficial of reactions: racism is indeed bad. Presented by the Paul Robeson Players, a company attempting to launch a black theater in Long Beach, this clunky, off-center production rarely captures the tension, simmering rage or rich characterization of Fuller's piece. As well-intentioned as it may be, this production just doesn't pass inspection.

On the surface, A Soldier's Play doesn't seem like much. It's a murder mystery told mostly in flashback, the kind of structure that can wear very thin very quickly; the 1984 film A Soldier's Story failed to do much in theaters because it never rose above its staid stage conventions. What makes Fuller's piece so intriguing, however, is that the identity of the murderer isn't the real mystery; rather, it's the identity of the victim. Who is Sergeant Waters (Robert Crow), and why would someone want to kill him?

The answer to the second question seems obvious at first. The play is set in 1944 at Fort Neal, an Army base deep in the crackered heart of Louisiana. White racists from a nearby town have lynched black soldiers recently, so it seems likely that members of the Ku Klux Klan shot Waters on a stretch of road as he stumbled back to his quarters. That scenario seems so likely that Fort Neal's commanding officer's "investigation" consists of searching the black troop's barracks for weapons just in case his black soldiers decide to retaliate by shooting a couple of peckerwoods.

Enter Captain Richard Davenport (Robert Joseph), the voice of reason. A black lawyer in a segregated Army, Davenport has been asked by the NAACP to investigate the murder. Nobody is pleased with his arrival-certainly not Fort Neal's white officers and, surprisingly, not Waters' platoon, none of whom seems particularly broken up about his murder.

Therein lies the point of the play. Waters, it is revealed, was a cruel man who relished the authority he had over his men like a plantation foreman. The reason, he said, was to keep them strong and prevent them from slipping into colored stereotype. The one thing Waters couldn't abide was a bowin', scrapin', smilin' yassah niggah. That's why he singled out for special abuse Private C.J. Memphis (Eric Quander), a guitar-pickin' sweet-natured farm boy whose greatest crime was being likable.

It soon becomes clear that many people had ample motive to plug Waters: white racists in town, white officers on the base, Waters' men. The ride to that realization ought to be riveting; under Charles Gray's rather lax direction, however, events unfold gently. There's not only little dramatic punch, but there's also little drama. By the time Waters' murderer is finally unveiled, it seems a mere postscript.

Part of the problem is in the production's thin characterizations. Only Crow's Sergeant Waters, Jou Jou Papailler's devious Peterson and Charles Allen's kiss-ass Private Wilkie deliver consistent depth to their characters.

Still, it's a very fine thing that the folks at the Long Beach Playhouse opened their doors to the Paul Robeson Players, a Compton-based company looking for a permanent home in Long Beach. That would be the first African-American theater company in Long Beach-a fact nearly as startling as the fact Orange County does not have a Latino theater company with a permanent home.

But the county does have a theater devoted to producing Latino plays. That it happens to be the wealthiest, highest-profile theater in the county (with one of the whitest, most affluent audience bases in the country) is a poetic irony. South Coast Repertory, which has long worked with some of the most talented Latino writers in the business, has now taken on Nilo Cruz and his Two Sisters and a Piano. Cruz's play is a small treasure, and this production truly allows it to sparkle. Under the direction of Loretta Greco (who proves here that directors can be as imaginative as actors and playwrights), the talented cast imbues Cruz's claustrophobic play of two sisters under house arrest with a defiant breath of life. On a sublime set by Robert Brill (the scenic brains behind the national touring production of Cabaret and one of the country's foremost designers), the characters reveal the occasional courage and strength of humans, cursed though we are with fragile bodies and psyches.

If there is one word to describe the characters in this play, it's hungry-the prisoners for food, the women for men, the men for conversation, and everyone for human connection. And in that respect, the people in Two Sisters and a Piano aren't that different from any of us. Cruz's most noteworthy achievement is that by opening the window-however slightly-on the human stories taking place in an oppressed nation, he sheds a little light on the Human Story that unfolds wherever we decide to call home.

A Soldier's Play at Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through May 30. $12-$15; Two Sisters and a Piano at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through June 5. $18-$43.

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