It is inevitable that the specter of the 1984 film version of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play (A Soldier’s Story) would hang over this production. Famous because of mesmerizing performances by a young Denzel Washington and the splendid Adolph Caesar — both of whom appeared in the original Negro Ensemble Company stage production — this murder mystery, set on a segregated military base in Louisiana during WWII, is an African-American actor’s dream.
I am uncomfortable comparing a work of theater to a movie, but not being old enough to have viewed the original production it is impossible not to do so. The gentleman who sat next to me — who had viewed the original production — declared that even he found it hard to keep the cinematic version out of mind. Directed by Norman Jewison, it raised the bar by expanding and fleshing out the play’s scenarios and in comparison making the staged version seem constrained. Though solid performances are on ample display, try as they might, Anthony Mackie is no Denzel, Taye Diggs no Howard Rollins, and veteran James McDaniel no Caesar. Director Jo Bonney produces an economical, briskly paced drama of nominal intrigue, if little electricity.
There is one respect in which the stage play surpasses the film — the complexity of the relationship between the two military captains, played by Diggs and Joe Forbrich. Hollywood softened the racial tension, but on stage it bristles to life as the two spar back and forth on the nature of race and power, the looming specter of racial equality, and the ghosts of racial hatred’s past.