February 5th is opening night for A Soldier’s Play at Western Michigan University. The Pulitzer Prize winning work by Charles Fuller premiered Off-Broadway in 1981 - starring famous cast members like Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. At its heart, the play a classic “Whodunnit” about an army sergeant’s mysterious murder. But it’s also about racial tensions among African American soldiers during World War II.
Like every good murder mystery, A Soldier’s Play starts with a bang. Vernon C. Waters, sergeant of an African American platoon in World War II, lies dead on the floor. Most of the play is spent figuring out who shot him - and almost everyone has a motive. Not only was Waters a black officer in a racially segregated era, but he had pretty radical ideas about race himself. WMU senior Eddie Coleman plays Waters:
“Basically he wants to take the quote unquote ‘cornbread collard greens’ style of the black race and get rid of them. And basically wants to be straight men, soldiers, lawyers - you know, citizens upholding the black race name and not downgrading it,” says Coleman.
That doesn’t sit well with everyone in his platoon. Chris Mansa plays the officer investigating the case. He says some soldiers think Waters is playing into what white segregationists want.
“You’re living in a time where all of the segregation and all of the hatred for your kind is going towards every one of your kind. So anyone that’s like you - you got to stick together. You have to have that security with each other to survive. And so in that time anyone like Waters who sort of sees the separation between the ignorant negro and the educated negro - you know what I mean - they can split us there. If they can divide us they can conquer us.”
It was a dangerous time to be a black man alone. To research the time period, Coleman says local playwright Von Washington Sr. pulled some statistics on lynching in the 1940s. Coleman says the number of deaths were staggering.
“And it’s very horrifying to know that you can be lynched at any minute just by the silliest thing. You know somebody not liking you, you looked at them funny. It’s really frightening,” he says.
If that doesn’t give you an idea of what it was like to be black during World War II, the posters on set certainly will. WMU recreated advertisements from the time. Director Mark Liermann says it’s a shocking juxtaposition to see recruitment posters for African Americans next to offensive black-face caricatures advertising cigarettes.
“The thing that struck me is that incredible desire and will to sacrifice their life - which many of them did and have since then - for a country that at the same time was putting out all of these recruitment posters about wanting to have them join the army. And that through the army they would gain respect and responsibility and courage - and all of these things, but mainly respect. And then getting them into the army and then segregating them and not using them when they had this great desire to serve.”
Liermann says even people like Sergeant Vernon Waters aren’t all bad - everyone in the play is just as human. Liermann says, in doing that, he thinks the playwright was making a strong statement about equality.
“This is a truly ensemble piece. In other words, this play doesn’t survive because of one character or one character’s perspective. This play survives because it’s a much broader, bigger picture than that. And it demands of every one of the actors on the stage - whether white or black - to be an equal part of the story.”
You can see A Soldier’s Play at WMU’s Shaw Theatre tonight through February 14th. For show times, follow the links on our website. A photo exhibit of African American servicemen will also accompany the play.