It’s hard to watch “A Soldier’s Play,” currently onstage at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, and not think of the recent fatal beating of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police.
The incident is only more sad and shocking proof that the historically biased culture of policing has changed little since George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The fact that the five Memphis police officers charged are Black heightens the immediacy of the play’s message: inherently racist structures and institutions are deadly, regardless of who is acting on their behalf.
First staged in 1981, Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer-winning play follows the murder investigation of an Army sergeant in charge of an all-Black unit. Taking place on a fictitious Louisiana Army post during World War II, the play opens with Tech. Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (Larry Akin Smith) lying on the ground as he’s shot by an unseen shooter. Initially, the Ku Klux Klan is suspected of the killing, but Capt. Richard Davenport (Keydron Dunn), an attorney and rare Black Army officer for the time period, soon finds there’s more to the story when he begins to investigate.
After arriving on post, Davenport – who is the first Black officer anyone stationed at Fort Neal has ever seen, generating pride in Black officers and disdain from white – learns that Waters was ambitious but harbored a disgust for Black men from the rural South who he believed perpetuated negative stereotypes. Playing out a bit like “In the Heat of the Night” meets “A Few Good Men,” the show uses the form of a murder mystery to explore how white racist attitudes can become internalized.
With an engaging staging and charismatic ensemble, Shanea Taylor’s direction keeps the proceedings steadily moving along without losing sight of the characters’ humanity. The show is strongest in scenes where the whole Army unit (Kamau Akinwole, Erich Appleby, Kieryn Burton, Joshua Carter, Tre’ LaRon and K’hari Zy’on) is together; their camaraderie and light razzing of each other feel natural.
As Waters, a Black man who recalls the police officer from “Boyz n the Hood,” Akin Smith balances sadism and charm believably. Similarly, Chandler Hubbard credibly portrays both empathy and casual racism as Capt. Charles Taylor, the white base commander who initially tries to impede Davenport’s investigation.
The production’s lone sour note is Dunn in the lead role. While Dunn looks the part of an Army captain, imperious behind a pair of aviators, he’s shaky in his characterization; much of his performance involves exaggerated facial expressions that don’t fit the character or the time period.
Against Mercedes Schaum’s perfectly proportioned barracks set, Joe Doran’s lighting design is a stunner, transitioning to red, white and blue for flashbacks and highlighting individual actors in solitary moments.
Though Swift Creek chose this script well in advance of Nichols’ death, the play’s message of how institutional racism can be internalized is sadly still relevant four decades on from the play’s premiere.
“A Soldier’s Play,” plays through March 4 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, 17401 US-1, South Chesterfield, 23834. For more information, call (804) 748-5203 or visit swiftcreekmill.com.