By Stanford Friedman

It’s the 50th anniversary season for The Negro Ensemble Company, and to mark the occasion they have mounted an uneven revival of A Soldier’s Play, a work that the troupe originally produced back in 1981. The ensemble cast of that staging included a couple guys named Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington, as well as the same Peter Friedman who is currently tearing it up in The Treasurer. Performed at Theatre 80 St. Marks, itself in its 52nd season and showing its age, the mood of this production is more melancholy and ghostly than urgent and vigorous.

Charles Fuller’s powerful, Pulitzer-winning script is loaded. Disguised as a murder mystery, it’s a treatise on the effects of segregation, and a study of the fine line between being powerless and being hateful. The story is set in a segregated Louisiana Army base in 1944, primarily in the barracks of the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. The name is fitting for this all-black group of men who are not yet allowed to serve on the front lines; former negro league baseball players brought together to spin their wheels until flare ups turn into conflagrations. At the center of the fire is the company drill sergeant, Vernon Waters (Gilbert Tucker) who, in the opening scene, is shot dead by an unseen killer. Stumbling into death, he shouts out cryptically, “They still hate you!”

The rest of the play is a weave of monologues and flashbacks. A black military lawyer, Captain Davenport (Chaz Reuben), is assigned to the case and we follow as he interviews the men who served under Waters. These privates are somewhat in awe of Davenport, the first black officer they’ve ever seen. Conversely, the white Captain Wilcox (Aaron Sparks) who oversees the base, figures that if the bigwigs sent a black man to investigate this murder, they don’t care about it to begin with.  In between interrogations, the light-skinned, educated Waters occasionally stumbles in, drowning either in liquor or in his hatred of the men he perceives as “Southern niggahs, yessahin’, bowin’ and scrapin’, scratchin’ your heads.” We see how he sought revenge and dispatched punishment upon these soldiers whom he believed were dragging down his race, when all along it was his own self-hatred, prejudices and misguided agendas that led him to those gunshots and his final words.

Mr. Tucker turns in a fine performance as the troubled Waters. With his thin moustache and raspy voice he cannot help but bring to mind
A Soldier’s StoryMr. Tucker finds his own path with a taught physicality and glowering, miserable temper. Mr. Reuben has a handful of nice, subtle moments as Davenport, but saddled with the job of endless questioning and busy with way too much scribbling in his notebook, we rarely feel for him. He is further defeated by having to play against a very stiff Mr. Sparks as Wilcox, his adversary.  Among the victimized underlings Fulton Hodges, as Private Wilkie shines, but Jimmy Gary, Jr. underplays the big hearted Private Memphis rendering him less lovable than we need him to be. Director Charles Weldon finds the right theatricality in having his players march, pivot, and salute at varying speeds, like the shiny or broken cogs that they are, while Chris Cumberbatch’s barely-there set is evidence of a non-profit theater company in need of donations.

A Soldier’s Play – by Charles Fuller, directed by Charles Weldon.

WITH: Gilbert Tucker (Vernon C. Waters), Chaz Reuben (Richard Davenport), P.J. Max (Tony Smalls), Horace Glasper (Louis Henson), Buck Hinkle (Charles Taylor), Derek Dean (Lt. Byrd), Jay Ward (Bernard Cob), Arron Lloyd (Corp. Ellis), Adrain Washington (Melvin Peterson), Fulton Hodges (James Wilkie), Aaron Sparks (Capt. Wilcox) and Jimmy Gary, Jr. (C.J. Memphis).

Set design by Chris Cumberbatch.  Lighting Design by Melody A. Beal.  Costume Design by Ali Turns.  Sound Design by Jacqui Anscombe. The Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, 866-811-4111, Through October 8. Running time: 2 hours.