Charles Fuller

A Soldier’s Play

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A Soldier’s Play Summary

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A Soldier’s Play is a detective mystery play by Charles H. Fuller Jr., an African American playwright. First performed in 1981, the play centers on racist attitudes a group of African Americans has towards each other and a murder at the heart of it all. The play was very well received and won both the 1982 Pulitzer Prize and the 1982 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play. After seeing that his high school had no books by African Americans, Fuller decided to become a writer.

Set in Louisiana, A Soldier’s Play takes place in 1944 at Fort Neal, a US Army base, which, at the time, is racially segregated. These racist tensions are important to the plot development and the murder that takes place at the start of the play. The main character, Captain Richard Davenport, is black, which is rare at the time. What’s even rarer is that, when Sergeant Vernon Waters, a fellow African American, is shot dead by an unknown assailant, Captain Davenport is put in charge of the investigation.

As the play opens, Sergeant Waters is attacked and killed after drinking heavily. The other black soldiers are confined to their barracks and searched for weapons. The white officers worry that the black soldiers will rebel or that this is the result of some gang revenge. When Captain Davenport arrives, he’s warned not to arrest any white soldiers, because no one will support him or cooperate with the investigation.

Captain Davenport, a lawyer, will look at everything objectively; he expects cooperation, whatever they may say. The black community believes the Ku Klux Klan killed Sergeant Waters, but they don’t have any proof. Captain Davenport dismisses these rumors until he has facts. He’s here to do a good job, proving that colored people are just as capable in leadership roles as white people.

When Captain Davenport meets the African American soldiers, they’re proud of him for making something of himself. It boosts their courage and morale to see one of their own in such a responsible position. They make sure his quarters are in order and vow to look after him. Captain Davenport, wanting to maintain a professional distance, gets right to questioning everyone.

The Captain interviews a soldier, Wilkie. He discovers that Sergeant Waters did not view all African Americans equally. He did not trust them all to do a good job, and he understood why the whites didn’t give them any responsibility. Sergeant Waters came from the North and believed he was better than the black men from the South. As a result, he wasn’t popular with many of the soldiers under his watch.

Wilkie observed something, which he tells Captain Davenport—because Sergeant Waters still had his stripes when they found his body, it wasn’t the Klan. The Klan strips its victims of any authority and prestige. The Captain hadn’t thought of this and thanks Wilkie for his help. He knows he needs to look for the culprit elsewhere.

Other soldiers, however, tell the Captain that Wilkie is just as domineering as the Sergeant. They notice that Wilkie, just like the Sergeant, is cruel to the others and pushes them too hard. They worry that he’s adopted white attitudes, using anger and violence to make his point. The Captain takes note of this, wanting to find out more about Wilkie and any divisions between the African Americans on the base.

The Captain learns that Sergeant Waters thought he was better than many of the black soldiers because he had an education. He treated many of them with disdain, blaming them personally for their lack of progression. He felt that, if all blacks were like him, the whites couldn’t treat them so badly. Because of his position, the other soldiers couldn’t argue with him.

Throughout the play, the audience gets flashbacks of all the ways Sergeant Waters mistreated the men. These flashbacks end around the time Captain Davenport learns it wasn’t a white man who killed Sergeant Waters, but a black man. Before the Sergeant died, he shouted, “They still hate you.” He was telling his shooter that, no matter what they all do, white people won’t view them as equal. He dies despondent and feeling like a failure.

Captain Davenport places Wilkie under arrest for the murder of Sergeant Waters. However, he soon learns it was two other soldiers, Smalls and Peterson, who did the killing. The pair had abandoned their duties early and run into the Sergeant, who was drunk in the middle of the road. Peterson had found this amusing because they were always getting into trouble for doing the same thing. Peterson pulled the trigger.

At the end of the play, the lights dim and the white leaders at the base thank Captain Davenport for his efforts. They accept they’ll have to get used to black men being in positions of power because he did a good job.