45 pages 1 hour read

Charles Fuller

A Soldier's Play

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1981

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Summary and Study Guide


A Soldier’s Play (1981) was written by Charles Fuller. It premiered off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1981, and was arguably the company’s most successful work to date. It ran for nearly 500 performances and earned the Critics Circle Best Play Award and the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play is loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924), an unfinished novella about a well-liked, handsome sailor who is falsely accused of a crime and accidentally kills the superior officer who accuses him. Reimagined in Fuller’s play as a conflict between Black soldiers during World War II, A Soldier’s Play criticizes institutional racism while investigating the destructive nature of internalized racism as it leads to the deaths of two Black men.

This study guide uses the edition of the play published by Hill and Wang in 1981.

Content Warning: This guide discusses gun violence, racism, lynching, murder, and death by suicide.

Plot Summary

The play is set in 1944 at a segregated US Army base in Louisiana, where the Black sergeant of an all-Black company has been murdered. The play opens with a drunk Sergeant Vernon Waters being shot twice by a shadowy figure. Although the prevailing presumption at the beginning of the play is that Sergeant Waters was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan, the belongings of the Black men in his company are searched for weapons and they are restricted from leaving the barracks out of fear that they might take revenge.

Captain Taylor, who is white, is overseeing the proceedings. Captain Davenport, a lawyer of equal rank to Taylor, arrives to carry out an investigation into Waters’s killing. Taylor is openly dismayed to see that Davenport is Black and tells him he intends to request that his orders to investigate be rescinded. Taylor claims that his reason is that a Black man won’t be allowed to arrest white perpetrators, but Davenport is unimpressed by the casual racism and demands the respect of his rank. Davenport speaks to the members of Waters’s company individually, piecing together the events that led to his death and learning about the complex and difficult relationship between Waters and his men. The men’s stories are shown through flashbacks.

Private Wilkie speaks kindly of Waters, even though Waters took away his rank and jailed him for being drunk on duty. Wilkie tells Davenport that he deserved it. He explains that the company doubled as a powerhouse baseball team, which Waters was brought on to coach. Waters had a hatred for Black men who were from the South, seeing them as unambitious and reinforcing racist white stereotypes of laziness. He blamed them for white supremacy. One Southern Black soldier was CJ, who was well-liked, played guitar, and was a star baseball player. Waters pretended to like CJ but actually couldn’t stand him.

Davenport’s next interviewee, Private First Class Peterson, tells him about a time that he stood up to Waters. Waters challenged him to fight and gave him a beating behind the barracks. Taylor interrupts Davenport’s conversation with Peterson to inform him that he has submitted paperwork to the colonel to end Davenport’s investigation. Davenport learns from Taylor that on the night of the murder, Waters had been in a drunken altercation with two white officers, one of whom had beaten him viciously. However, both men have provided airtight alibis, signed off on by the colonel himself. Davenport is determined to bring the two white officers to justice.

In the second Act, Davenport tells the audience that he has obtained permission from the colonel to question the two white officers who are suspected of killing Waters. His next interview is with Private Louis Henson, who reveals more of CJ’s story and the reason that he only appears in flashbacks. There had been a shooting in which a white officer had died, and someone had hidden the gun under CJ’s bunk. When accused of the murder, CJ panics and hits Waters, who is taunting him, in the chest. CJ is arrested, a casualty of Waters’s vendetta against Southern Black men. Terrified of going to jail for a murder he didn’t commit, CJ dies by suicide.

Next, Davenport interrogates the two white officers. One is respectful but the other is blatantly racist. Taylor is surprised when Davenport isn’t ready to arrest them. Instead, Davenport talks to Wilkie again, who admits that he planted the gun under CJ’s bunk on Waters’s orders. Suddenly, Corporal Ellis enters and exclaims joyfully that the Black company is finally going to be sent overseas to join the action. Davenport places Wilkie under arrest, then discovers that another member of the company, Private Tony Smalls, has also been arrested for going AWOL. Davenport goes to speak to Smalls, who confesses that he was with Peterson, who is also AWOL and still missing, and saw him murder Waters.

Davenport tells the audience that Peterson was eventually caught and charged. The rest of the company went overseas and was killed at once in a battle with the Germans.

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