NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — February is Black History Month and each day, CBS2 is highlighting stories that celebrate black heritage and culture.
Today, the spotlight is on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that was written and first on stage in the early 1980s.
Set on an Army base in segregated Louisiana, Sgt. Vernon C. Waters is tormented by self-hate and rage.
“The only thing that will move the race is power,” the character says.
Three-time Tony Award nominee David Alan Grier is the sergeant in command of black soldiers; some he persecuted. Blair Underwood is the captain, a lawyer assigned to investigate the sergeant’s murder.
His authority is immediately called into question by a white captain played by actor Jerry O’Connell.
“It’s one of my favorite scenes,” Underwood said. “What he sees is black man in a uniform of equal ranks. We’re both captains … He says ‘it’s very startling’ just seeing you, trying to process all of that.
“All of my radars are up on that stage,” Underwood continued. “So in those moments, you hear the gasps some nights, but more importantly, you feel it. You can feel it. Sometimes, it’s just stunned silence.”
O’Connell says this play is the most important thing he’s ever worked on and learning to portray a racially insensitive character was demanding.
“And it was, is, very difficult for me. It’s just very difficult for me to personally, I know it’s a character that I’m up there saying these words, but it’s difficult for me to say these words,” he said.
But the actor was pushed past his discomfort by Tony-winning director Kenny Leon.
“I just challenged him. I said, you know, there are nine black men and three white men in this play. You have to carry the weight of this white man who has warts and sides of him that are not so pleasant. You have to put yourself back in the ’40s,” Leon said.
Playwright Charles Fuller was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “A Soldier’s Play.” The Negro Ensemble Company first staged it off-Broadway in 1981. Actors Adolph Caesar and young Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson embodied roles familiar to Fuller.
“Humans are, if anything, not perfect, and so having been in the Army with a lot of nuts and great guys,” Fuller said. “I could always look back to find a character I needed in a story.”
The 1984 film “A Soldier’s Story” was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture. The murder mystery exposes the disrespect black soldiers endured from whites and each other and the ingratitude they faced.
“If you’re willing to die for your country, your country should be able to at least look at you and say thank you,” Fuller said.
Director Kenny Leon uses music to underscore the soldiers’ service, sacrifice and what he calls “cultural baggage.”
“I sort of try these chain-gang prison songs throughout the piece just to give it some depth in terms of African-Americans’ contributions to America,” Leon said. “Actually, I’m asking you at the end of the play, when is the perfect time for all of us to grow into our true American selves?”
The Roundabout Theatre production of “A Soldier’s Play” is at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street now through March 15.