The Negro Ensemble Company is BACK! — Like other American-African theater organizations, this iconic company has been struggling for well over a decade to provide and maintain a professional venue for Black playwrights to tell stories about people from the African diaspora in quality staged productions. Founded in 1967 by Robert Hooks, Douglass Turner Ward and Gerald S. Krone with support from the Ford Foundation, the Negro Ensemble Company has helped launch careers for some of Hollywood’s top Black actors, and supported others on their way to stardom. Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Charles Weldon, Billy Dee Williams, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Charles Dutton, Lynn Whitfield, Barbara Montgomery, Laurence Fishburn, Glynn Turman, Denzel Washington, and the late greats Esther Rolle, Frances Foster, Adolph Caesar, Roscoe Lee Brown, Gloria Foster and Sherman Hemsley are all among this illustrious roster of talented actors. The Negro Ensemble Company also fostered behind the scenes talent, giving Black directors, set designers, costume designers, light and sound technicians a chance to hone their skills.
This year, N.E.C. has been celebrating its 50th Anniversary with a series of iconic plays. The 50th Anniversary series aptly titled “Recapturing The Magic!” opened with the hilarious, and still too relevant satire, Day of Absence by N.E.C. co-founder/ actor/writer/director Douglass Turner Ward. Two one act plays followed: Rosa Lee Pritchett about the rape of a woman of the Black bourgeoisie by a White National Guardsman in the Civil Rights era south, written by Barbara & Carlton Molette, and The Perry Mission about the counter-culture of the late 1960’s–70’s by Clarence Young, III. Daughters of the Mock , a mysterious drama about a Louisiana family with no males and a deadly secret, by Judi-Ann Mason followed. The final play of the series, A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller, is the current offering, and a must-see for N.E.C. fans everywhere!
In its 50th Anniversary year, the Negro Ensemble Company has returned to its original stomping grounds, lower Manhattan’s East Village. Just a block away from where these plays were originally produced at Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, the new venue is Theatre 80 St. Marks, an iconic location in itself for its decades long history of bringing socially conscious, controversial productions to the American stage.
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER
A Soldier’s Play weaves a tale of intrigue and murder taking place on an all-Negro army base in the 1940’s. Fuller deftly tackles issues of assimilation, inclusion and self-hatred in this Pulitzer Prize winning drama popularized by Fuller’s film adaptation, A Soldier’s Story. When an abusive Negro drill sergeant, Sgt. Waters, is found dead in the woods near a southern army base, the handsome, sophisticated Captain Davenport, a Negro officer and military attorney, is dispatched from Washington, D.C. to investigate the murder. Assuming it was a crime committed by the Ku Klux Klan, the base captain for colored troops, Captain Taylor tries to discourage Captain Davenport from continuing his investigation for fear that it will spark a violent backlash from the southern white racists in the area. Davenport, a Northerner and graduate of Howard University, is idolized by the Negro soldiers; he is the first Black commissioned officer these enlisted men had ever seen. He vigorously pursues the case despite uncooperative Captain Taylor and the other White officers who, despite his rank, segregate him from Officer’s Quarters. A Soldier’s Play contains unexpected twists and revelatory Black self-hatred amid hopes of laying bare their manhood and patriotism, telling a riveting story that remains relevant to military personnel and civilians alike.
A SOLDIER’S PLAY, N.E.C.’s BIGGEST SUCCESS STORY
The original Off-Broadway production of A Soldier’s Play included a very young Denzel Washington as Private First Class Peterson, Samuel L.Jackson as Private Henson and the late Adolph Caesar as the mean Sgt. Waters. It is considered N.E.C.’s most successful production and has been re-produced by N.E.C. and many other theater companies since its premier in 1981. Charles Fuller later successfully adapted the play into a full length feature film, A Soldier’s Story (1984) with Denzel Washington and Adolph Caesar reprising their original roles as Peterson and Waters, and Howard Rollins as Captain Davenport and garnered several Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
The Fiftieth Anniversary re-boot of A Soldier’s Play introduces an entirely new set of actors including Adrain Washington (Private Peterson), Horace Glasper (Private Henson) and Gil Tucker (Sgt. Waters) . Other cast members include: Chaz Reuben* (Captain Davenport), Fulton C. Hodges ( Private Wilkie) , P.J. Max (Private Smalls), Buck Hinkle ( Captain Taylor), Jimmy Gary, Jr. as ( Private C.J. Memphis), Aaron Sparks (Captain Wilcox), Aaron Lloyd (Corporal Ellis), and Jay Ward* (Corporal Cobb).
OPENING NIGHT PERFORMANCES
Directed by Charles Weldon with assistance from Reggie Wilson, this production holds great potential to go beyond the limited two week run at 80 St Marks. Tthe first two weeks of any show is still a production in its infancy. By the third week, a great play becomes even greater. Chaz Reuben’s Captain Davenport could project more confidence. The actor is presented with a huge challenge in that his onstage antagonist, Buck Hinkle (Captain Taylor) is a half foot taller—physically towering over him in every confrontational scene. Davenport is a no-nonsense attorney who persists in his mission—challenging the White military establishment to acknowledge his right to do his job as well as acknowledging and respecting his rank. The actor, therefore, who plays him must stand his ground with the likes of Captain Taylor, Captain Wilcox and Lieutenant Byrd. Kudos to Chaz Reuben for his last minute thrust to the fore; Reuben was originally hired as an understudy for Layon Gray, who was slated to play Davenport. Chaz Reuben has the opportunity to make the lead role his own—that is once he fully steps into it full throttle.
Performances of note from Horace Glasper as Private Henson, Jay Ward as Corporal Cobb, Derek Dean as Lieutenant Byrd and Adrain Washington as Peterson. These talented actors have recreated these roles, discovering each character for themselves, without imitating the performances made famous in the movie version of the play. When I asked Gil Tucker (Sgt. Waters), a clone in appearance, mannerism and gruff voice for Adolph Caesar, how he was able to create Sgt. Waters without being a stand-in for the late great Adolph Caesar, he told me that he embodied the characters of Waters based on his own understanding; however, he knew he would be compared to Caesar because of his uncanny resemblance. Also, because Caesar was such a consummate professional. Tucker has retained many of Caesar’s choices “because they’re the best choices.”
Both Gil Tucker and Fulton C. Hodges are reprising their roles as Waters and Wilkie, having performed together in a previous production of A Soldier’s Play. They slipped easily into their characterizations. Their performances were strong and emotional, as were Washington’s, Ward’s and Glasper’s. Doing the military/angry- black men/white men dynamic could easily degenerate into barking dialogue throughout the play. But while it occasionally occurs, the cast, under the guidance of N.E.C. veteran actor and director Charles Weldon, have largely avoided that trap.
Jimmy Gary, Jr. portrays C.J. Memphis, an affable and superstitious country boy from Mississippi. Like Tucker who resembles Adolph Caesar, one can’t help but notice Gary’s resemblance to the late Larry Riley from the film version of the play. Gary, a former Seattle Seahawk, is a big guy who plays guitar and sings with a Louisiana twang. He seems made for the role of C.J. Memphis. Aaron Lloyd (Corporal Ellis) performs a slow motion precision walk throughout the play reminding us of the pride in being called to serve expressed by African-Americans who in a segregated army, had to perform twice as well to gain half as much as Whites.
The opening night performance included a Q & A preceded by the cast marching in a military drill conducted by Assistant Director Reggie Wilson. Without Waters’ gruff, Wilson barked orders to the ensemble cast and I felt like I was out on the campground watching a real platoon practicing for a military parade. A talented performer in his own right, Wilson shaped his motley crew into a mean, tan and green marching machine.
HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF A SOLDIER’S PLAY
A Soldier’s Play is a compelling, historically significant play, dramatizing the contradictions inherent in Black America’s continued demonstration of patriotism, military service and sacrifice despite lynchings, segregation and other forms of legalized discrimination and violence. A Soldier’s Play takes place on a segregated army base, headed by White officers who doubt the very intelligence and capability of the men they command. These are true facts of American history; the U.S. military was racially segregated from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War until the Korean War in 1949. Immigrants from every country in Europe and other places were given a chance to fight for America in the mainstream military, but Blacks, above everyone else, were kept isolated, charged with cooking, cleaning and digging ditches until the White soldiers fell into dire straits. African-Americans were called in to save the day—they always did so, with honor, courage and distinction. The beauty of Fuller’s play is his refusal to rely on stereotypes of Blacks “good,” Whites “bad.” Instead, he paints a picture of dimensional black men; men suffering the contradictions of service, and commitment to a military and a nation that does not want or appreciate them. Their own inner conflicts of assimilation versus resistance are ably portrayed in Sargeant Waters and in Private First Class Peterson, two sides of the same coin, that coin being the uplift of the race. Ironically, the original stage and film Peterson, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, went on to play Malcolm X, one could say a more militant version of Peterson.
A Soldier’s Play as a dramatic script is complete in itself and a treat for any actor to explore, particularly for Black actors who still long for more multi-dimensional Black characters to portray in mainstream film and theater.
CHANGING ROLES FOR A CHANGING WORLD
In the past, Black actors dreamed of the chance to play Othello. Now they can aspire to play the men of the 221 st Infantry of A Soldier’s Play as well as the many wonderful characters in August Wilson’s century cycle. But these are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is no shortage of plays or Black playwrights, just a lack of will and money to produce them by mainstream producers. That is why the Negro Ensemble Company and African-American Theater Companies in the United States and Toronto must be supported first and foremost by the people whose stories are being told by them! A few Black Theater Companies include: Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theater, Voza Rivers’ New Heritage Theater, The Billie Holiday Theater(Brooklyn), National Black Theater (all in NYC); North Carolina Black Repertory Company; Congo Square Theater (Chicago, IL); Crossroads Theater Company (New Brunswick, NJ); Juneteenth Legacy Theater (Louisville, KY), Los Angeles African American Repertory Company (Los Angeles, CA); Freedom Theater (Philadelphia, PA) Karamu House (Cleveland, OH); The Robey ( Los Angeles, CA), Penumbra Theater Company (Minneapolis, MN); and numerous others.
To quote Karen Brown, N.E.C. Executive Producer: “This isn’t the new Negro Ensemble Company…this IS the Negro Ensemble Company! Yes, N.E.C. is back, but in truth, N.E.C. never really left in the first place.”
A Soldier’s Play is written by Charles Fuller, directed by Charles Weldon, produced by Executive Producer, Karen Brown /Negro Ensemble Company. Theatre 80 St. Marks at 80 St. Marks Place, New York, N.Y. 10003.
*Courtesy Actors Equity.
September 27 – October 8, 2017
80 Theatre St Marks
80 St. Marks Place
East Village, NYC
For tickets and/or more information visit: www.necinc.org