Cast in 1981′s ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ Eugene Lee reenlists for 2022 tour



“A Soldier’s Play” writer Charles Fuller may have been a master wordsmith, but as actor Eugene Lee describes it, the true power of his Pulitzer Prize-winning script was its ability to bring a room to silence.

Lee, 69, was a cast member in the original 1981 production of “A Soldier’s Play,” produced off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company and directed by Douglas Turner Ward. When the actors sat down on the first day of rehearsal and read through the play — about the investigation into the murder of an all-Black Army unit’s sergeant in 1944 Louisiana — he recalls a hush that washed over the room as the cast processed Fuller’s incisive depiction of identity, military duty and race in America.

Charles Fuller, who won a Pulitzer for ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ dies at 83

“It was like everybody knew,” Lee recalls. “Doug broke that silence and he said, ‘That’s it. If you don’t ever do anything more with it, that’s it.’ And from that moment on, we were champing at the bit to share this play with the rest of the world.”

Four decades later, Lee is still sharing “A Soldier’s Play” — now as a cast member in the touring production onstage at the Kennedy Center through Jan. 8. After playing Cpl. Bernard Cobb in the off-Broadway production and Pfc. Melvin Peterson in its subsequent tour, Lee takes on the role of Vernon C. Waters — the volatile sergeant whose death looms over the play — in the touring production of director Kenny Leon’s 2020 Broadway revival.

Speaking by phone from New Haven, Conn., where the “Soldier’s Play” tour had a brief run earlier this month before officially opening at the Kennedy Center, the actor and playwright (“East Texas Hot Links”) discussed playing a third character in the show, reflected on the original production’s resonance and gave his take on the endurance of Fuller’s message.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: The original production of “A Soldier’s Play” included a young Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. What do you remember about working with them and the rest of that ensemble?

A: Oh, what’s the word? Fellowship, brotherhood, camaraderie, ensemble — it’s never been more represented, I think, in any production that I’ve ever experienced than in this play. It was a tightly knit group of people who watched out for each other, who cared about each other, who loved each other. The families, we’re still connected. When I lived in LA, so much of my extended family was people that were involved with the Negro Ensemble Company and, in particular, those soldiers — people like Sam and Denzel and Jim Pickens. We were all out in LA, and we’d spend the holidays at each other’s homes. You know, I’m “Uncle Gene” to most of these guys’ children. So it was a special time.

Norm Lewis commands the stage in ‘A Soldier’s Play’ at Kennedy Center

Q: How would you describe the dynamic of returning to this play four decades later?

A: It’s really great to revisit this play as a slightly more mature actor, with a slightly more finely tuned instrument, if you know what I mean, and as a more mature playwright to rediscover the nuance in this play, the contradictions, the resonance that it still has in American society today. To revisit it and see how much it still resonates and still echoes is really kind of special. That’s what I love about what we do. It can have healing power, but it also communicates ideas so well.

Q: What does it say about the timelessness of Fuller’s writing that the themes he touches on still remain so relevant?

A: It says volumes. I really feel that Charles, in his work, sought a couple of basic things, and that’s truth and clarity. This play has both those things, and those things are eternal. The truth is forever, and if you present it with a level of clarity that’s poetic, it makes it resonate that much more.

Q: Waters is a remarkably complicated character whose death drives the story forward. How do you approach playing him?

A: Honestly and, hopefully, with clarity. This man only exists as a memory for these soldiers that are being interviewed. So there’s a strange obligation — spoiler alert or whatever — but there are lies that are told in these interviews, and I have to play those lies. I have to be what they say I was, which is very interesting. But to also be able to find the contradictions in this man, the vulnerabilities as well as those strong points, the sensitivities that this man has, to find a way to make him a complete human being are part of the challenge. And there’s plenty there to work with.

Q: Do you find yourself channeling Adolph Caesar, who played the role off-Broadway in 1981 and in the Oscar-nominated 1984 film adaptation “A Soldier’s Story,” or David Alan Grier, who played the part on Broadway in 2020?

A: I do think there’s a part of me that channels a piece of Adolph. He was paradigm, he was the original, so in fact, I find myself trying to work against parroting Adolph, to make it mine. As Kenny reimagines this play, I think it’s important that I do so as well and not bring expectations of this play related to what I did or what anyone did in the original or any other production.

Q: What are the emotions that come to mind when you reflect on your long history with this play and the opportunity to circle back to it on this tour?

A: Well, elation, glee, honor are the emotions. I’m as excited now about doing this play as I ever was. I loved getting there early and doing this play every night and sharing this play with whoever sat out in the audience, so I’ve got that same kind of joy and enthusiasm about sharing it with this new cast and about sharing this across the country as well. This is a much bigger audience than just New York, and that’s exciting. I feel like a kid in a candy store. This is big fun.

John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. NW; 202-467-4600.

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