‘A Soldier’s Play’ at 2nd Star Productions by Maria Kuhns

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2nd Star Productions’ A Soldiers Play takes place in 1944 at the U.S Army’s racially segregated Fort Neal, Louisiana. Set at the height of World II, this compelling drama by Charles Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Directed by Jane B. Wingard and produced by Cheramie Jackson, the play employs a murder mystery that examines the emotional struggle of African American troops grappling with anger and resentment within themselves and with each other. The chasm becomes greater as the men struggle whether to adopt Southern white attitudes of the time or stay true to themselves.

Ramone Williams(CJ Memphis).
Ramone Williams(CJ Memphis). Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions.

Set Designer Jane Wingard effectively sets the stage with a stark and sparsely furnished barracks room, evident of the times where soldiers lived with the barest necessities of bunks and footlockers. Set decorations and costumes by Wingard and Cheramie Jackson effectively capture period military tan officer uniforms, stiff and formal, which overshadow the enlisted green utility uniforms and black jump boots. Lighting Designer Rick Schultz and Sound Designer Ramone Williams illuminate the drama further with gunfire popping in the background

The play unfolds dramatically as the audience witnesses the murder of Sergeant Vernon Waters (Christopher M. Dinwiddie) by an unknown shooter. Dinwiddie’s convincing portrayal of the in-your-face drill sergeant would rattle even the most seasoned soldier, as he shows different degrees of emotion ranging from exhilaration to anger, and commanded his role with believable authority and confidence. As Waters falls to the floor and struggles with his last dying breath, he screams, “They still hate you!” And here – right away – Director Jane Wingard automatically sets the tone for this very powerful and telling portion of history that examines not only the acute division of racial relations, but also the heart and soul of her actors who deliver anguished, gut-wrenching portrayals.

The Army sends Captain Richard Davenport (played by Kevin Sockwell), a black officer, to interview witnesses and potential suspects. Sockwell is so convincing as a lawyer that you’d think to ask him if he was available to represent you in court!  Davenport is determined to uncover the truth behind Waters’ murder, and rails against his white officer counterpart, Captain Taylor (Dan Kavanaugh), whose superiors want the investigation to quietly disappear. Taylor has to struggle with his own racial demons, while also realizing that he must fulfill his duty to see that justice is done, and Kavanaugh nails this inner turmoil in his riveting performance.

As Davenport explores the killing, we see flashbacks that reveal who Waters was and how he treated his men. He targets Private C.J. Memphis (played by Ramone Williams), an easy-going blues guitar player, who is wrongly accused of having the gun that killed his fellow soldiers. And as the plot twist unravels, Wingard eloquently draws the audience into the men’s angst as they share their feelings about Memphis and Waters.

Because A Soldier’s Play has such a powerful storyline, it’s so easy to become immersed in the raw emotions that the actors portray throughout the production.  What impressed me most about the show was the wide range of talent of the extraordinary cast.

Dan Kavanaugh, who played Captain Taylor, gives a convincing performance of a white officer struggling with racial relations as he deals with his Army counterpoint, Captain Davenport, who also struggles with his superiors to ensure that justice prevailed. As Private Wilkie, Benny Poped delivers an especially riveting performance as a soldier caught defining the reality of his life and the denial of his true feelings. David E. Johnson, Jr., who plays Corporal Cobb, is truly memorable as a young man whose depiction of events was so powerful that the I could fully senses his anguish.

(From left) David Johnson, Daley Gunter, Dan Kavanaugh and Cristopher Dinwiddie. Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions.
(From left) David Johnson, Daley Gunter, Dan Kavanaugh and Cristopher Dinwiddie. Photo courtesy of 2nd Star Productions.

Reginald Grier (PFC Peterson) and Antoine Bragg (Private Smalls) give compelling performances as two soldiers who are so unalike in personality, yet who struggle together with impossible circumstances. As Officers Lieutenant Byrd (Lawrence Griffin) and Captain Wilcox (Ethan Goldberg), their intense delivery of the motto: ‘An Officer and a Gentleman,’ demonstrates tough emotion and grit as they loudly challenge Captain Davenport.The very talented Frederick Henderson (Corporal Ellis) gives a convincing performance as a soldier with unfailing dedication to duty. Daley Fitzgerald Gunter (Private Henson) delivers a powerful performance as a soldier who tells it like it is. His character doesn’t mince words, especially when it comes to his fellow soldiers.

Come and see 2nd Star Productions’ A Soldier’s Play, not just for the rich storyline as African American soldiers share their tales of struggle and turmoil, but also for the deep and heightened sense of pure honesty you will feel as the characters lay it out on the line. They do so without pretense or bravado, and with pure emotion that will leave you truly moved and inspired.

Running Time: 90 minutes, plus one intermission.

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A Soldier’s Play plays through March 9, 2014 at 2nd Star Productions performing at Charis Center for the Arts – 13010 8th Street, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call (410) 757-5700 or (301) 832-4819, or purchase them online.  

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