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A Soldier's Play

For the film adaptation, see A Soldier's Story.
A Soldier's Play
Written by Charles Fuller
Characters Capt. Davenport
Sgt. Waters
Pvt. Wilkie
Cpl. Cobb
Pvt. Smalls
Capt. Taylor
C.J. Memphis
Cpl. Ellis
Pfc. Peterson
Pvt. Henson
Big Mary
Lt. Byrd
Capt. Wilcox
Sgt. Washington
Col. Nivens
Date premiered November 20, 1981
Place premiered Lucille Lortel Theatre
New York City, New York
Original language English
Genre Mystery; drama
Setting Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944

A Soldier's Play is a drama by Charles Fuller. The play uses a murder mystery to explore the complicated feelings of anger and resentment that some African Americans have toward one another, and the ways in which many black Americans have absorbed white racist attitudes.

This play is loosely based on Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd.

Plot synopsis

The story takes place at United States Army's Fort Neal, Louisiana in 1944 during the time when the military was racially segregated. In the opening scene, the audience witnesses the murder of black Sergeant Vernon Waters by an unseen shooter. Just before his death, Waters utters the enigmatic cry, "They still hate you!"

Captain Richard Davenport, a rare black Army officer, has been sent to investigate the killing. Initially, the primary suspects are local Ku Klux Klansmen. Later, bigoted white soldiers fall under suspicion. Ultimately, Davenport discovers the killer was one of the black soldiers under Waters' command. Waters' men hated him because Waters himself treated Southern black men in utter disdain and contempt.

As Davenport interviews witnesses and suspects, we see flashbacks showing what Sergeant Waters was like, and how he treated his men. The light-skinned Waters was highly intelligent and extremely ambitious, and loathed black men who conformed to old-fashioned racist stereotypes. Waters dreamed of sending his own children to an elite college where they would associate with white students, rather than with other blacks. In Waters' mind, Uncle Toms and "lazy, shiftless Negroes" reflected poorly on him, and made it harder for other African-Americans to succeed. For that reason, Waters persecuted black soldiers like Private C.J. Memphis, whose broad grin and jive talk made Waters' blood boil. Waters' cruelty and vindictiveness drove Memphis to suicide, which alienated the rest of Waters' men, and turned them hopelessly against him.

Shortly before he was murdered, Waters came to realize how futile and foolish his lifelong attempts to behave like a white man had been. His dying words, "They still hate you," reflected his belated understanding that white hatred and disdain of black men like himself had nothing to do with stereotypical black behavior, and that whites would probably always hate him, no matter how hard he tried to emulate "white" ways.


The play originally was staged by the Negro Ensemble Company at the Theatre Four (now called the Julia Miles Theatre. It opened on November 20, 1981 and ran for 468 performances and won, in addition to the Pulitzer, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, and the Obie Award for Distinguished Ensemble Performance. The original cast included Adolph Caesar as Sergeant Waters, Denzel Washington as Private Peterson, Larry B. Riley as Private C.J. Memphis, Samuel L. Jackson as Private Louis Henson, Peter Friedman as Captain Charles Taylor, and Charles Brown as Captain Davenport.

Film adaptation

Main article: A Soldier's Story

Caesar, Washington and Larry B. Riley reprised their roles in the film version, A Soldier's Story, directed by Norman Jewison.

Awards and nominations

  • 1981 Drama Critics' Circle Award Best American Play
  • 1982 Outer Critics Circle Award Best Off-Broadway Play
  • 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama


External links