Heroes erupting in the dark8/19/2015
Among African-Americans, for decades, it was an honor to be called a “race man.” The term referred to those blacks who strove hardest for equality, from Jackie Robinson to Malcolm X. So, too, Charles Fuller, author of “A Soldier’s Play,” turned to writing when he discovered his high school library didn’t contain a single book by anyone of his race.
Yet to live for a cause takes a toll, and this gives us the tragedy of “Soldier’s Play,” so stirring it won a Pulitzer in 1982. Set during the last World War, it pits one “race man” against another, as a murder mystery unfolds in a Deep Dixie Army barracks. Both the local Klan and institutional racism afflict the African-American troops, but one of them has made sergeant. When he turns up dead, it’s trouble. When the investigating officer arrives, it’s worse: he’s black as well.
This Captain Davenport demands that the actor playing him keep a chip on his shoulder. Ken-Matt Martin, at the Social Club, works with jaw set, and his questions penetrate deeper when he lowers his voice. Still, his role seems a weak spot in the script, almost one-dimensional. Around this superhero, others disarm us with fallen humanity.
Only three whites appear in the drama, and one, Brian Vaughan, briefly but vividly serves as Martin’s foil. Vaughn (new to Iowa, out of New York) packs a lacerating sneer. More engaging, though, are the complex changes played by Scott Siepker. As the murdered sergeant’s commander, Siepker works up a resonant ambivalence. Before he can commit to his “hot-shot” black visitor, he struggles, never quite nodding and unsure of his footing.
Throughout, in fact, the ground keeps shifting, thanks to Matthew McIver’s direction. Solving the mystery requires repeated flashbacks, and McIver embodies these by working with different levels of Tim Wisgerhof’s triangular set. An interrogation in the present will begin at the top, against one wall, but the secrets that emerge are acted out front and center at ground level. Truth and lies overlap like the planking of Wisgerhof’s barracks, and the weathered brown suits most of the cast as well.
The show’s African-American grunts, seven in all, achieve a rich interplay rarely matched in Des Moines. The give and take can make you laugh — as Nana Coleman screws his lips this way and that — or cringe, as Freddie Fulton swells with rage, his shoulders a monster’s and his eyes a madman’s.
Still, no one commands the stage like Aaron Smith. His tormented opening cry — “They still hate us!” — at once asserts the drama’s power. Smith plays the doomed sergeant, a “race man” of the old school, at odds with the young troops beneath him, and the conflicts wrangle him now toward drill-captain strictness, now toward drunken reeling. He waves around his thick hands as if he hopes to put things back in order with a single swat. He erupts out of our fear of the dark while showing us, unforgettably, the darkness within. CV