As the richly drawn characters converse and tussle, Fuller’s examination of toxic masculinity provides fascinating fodder for character development and interplay. Private C.J. Memphis, a laidback, soulful presence in the midst of more fiery personalities, is portrayed by Sheldon D. Brown, a Dayton native and 2010 Stivers School for the Arts graduate.
“There is so much performance that men do, the portraying of masculinity and hubris, and the (desire) to be the alpha male,” said Brown, 30. “C.J. is the only character that doesn’t feel the need to insult anyone else or make fun of anyone else. There’s something beautiful about that because that’s a part of men that we suppress, ignore or is viewed as weak. It’s also something you don’t see portrayed in Black men. But humility is C.J.’s superpower and I think it’s important to see a man in this way, especially in the military.”
The Ohio engagement of the 2020 Tony Award-winning revival of Fuller’s acclaimed drama will be co-presented by Dayton Live and the Human Race Theatre Company. Produced by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, the show is directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”). Fuller received an Academy Award nomination for his 1984 film adaptation titled “A Soldier’s Story.”
“This is an incredibly powerful piece of theatre, an edge-of-your-seat murder mystery that deals with themes and issues in a most thought-provoking way,” said Ty Sutton, Dayton Live President and CEO. “Dayton Live has partnered with the Human Race Theatre Company to bring this acclaimed production to Dayton, the only Ohio stop on the tour. The only other Midwestern cities on the 20-city North American tour are Chicago and Minneapolis.”
Human Race Executive Director Kappy Kilburn also shared her excitement as a presenting partner, especially for purposes of growth beyond the troupe’s subscriber base.
“The Human Race Theatre Company is thrilled to partner with Dayton Live to bring this award-winning production to town,” said Kilburn. “Through this collaboration, our audience gets to enjoy this stellar opportunity with many more in our community.”
‘A universal story’
Stage and screen star Norm Lewis, a veteran of 14 Broadway productions and countless TV and film appearances, leads this national tour as Captain Richard Davenport, who is sent to investigate the murder. He said he was familiar with the material due to its film version but has been amazed by the play’s intriguing layers in which discussions of Black culture reaches beyond race, a similar trait found in the masterful works of August Wilson (“Fences,” “The Piano Lesson”).
“I always loved (‘A Soldier’s Story’) and knew it as great entertainment when I saw the movie, but reading the play and finally doing the play has (revealed) that there is a lot to discover,” said Lewis, 59. “This play talks about racism, self-hatred and brotherhood but it’s also a universal story. Even though it’s told through Black eyes, a lot of people from different cultures and backgrounds have said they understood it through their eyes. If you are willing to open you heart and your mind to come see this play you will leave with something more than what you came with.”
Fans of Lewis are well aware of his marvelous baritone that dazzled Broadway audiences in such musicals as “Side Show,” “The Wild Party,” “Amour,” “Les Misérables” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.” He also received a Tony nomination for his revelatory portrayal of Porgy in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” opposite Audra McDonald.
Having auditioned for many plays over the years and being repeatedly cast in musicals, he feels relieved to have the opportunity to show his artistry in a different format. This tour has also reminded him of his influence on a younger generation.
“I’m a thespian who gets to do a play without having to necessarily use my voice in a singing way,” he said, chuckling. “The young guys in the cast have also come up to me to tell me I’ve been an inspiration to them. So, I’m finally That Guy.”
More importantly, this new chapter in his career couldn’t have come at a better time, particularly in terms of self-reflection. The racial battles within “A Soldier’s Play” stirred remembrances of his own struggles with colorism growing up in Eatonville, Florida, a Black suburb near Orlando, which also served as the setting for Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
“I had a really good childhood, but I will say that there were moments in my life that being a dark-skinned Black boy was put down,” he recalled. “For a long time, it took me a while to accept my darkness. I wanted to be the light-skinned guy because the light-skinned guy got all the attention. It took me until I got to college to really accept myself fully in regard to my race. Within the context of this show, I understand the feelings of self-hatred, the feeling of less than.”
‘We knew we had something special’
Eugene Lee, who portrays cruel, outspoken Sergeant Vernon C. Waters, has been affiliated with “A Soldier’s Play” from the very beginning. He was among the original 1981 off-Broadway cast, which included Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Adolph Caesar. He recalled the first reading of the play, prompting all involved to savor the magnitude of the moment.
“A silence passed over the room when we finished reading it because we knew we had something special,” said Lee, 69. “Seeing the expressions on everyone’s faces from the standing ovation on opening night was also special. The audience recognized the play as something clear, something that spoke to them and something they saw themselves in.”
Lee, who is also a playwright, is a veteran of stage and screen appearing in such shows as “The Women of Brewster Place,” “Good Times,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He most recently appeared on Broadway as Lieutenant John Stokes in “American Son,” a role he reprised in the 2019 Emmy-nominated Netflix adaptation starring Kerry Washington and directed by Leon.
After 40 years, he is proud to return to “A Soldier’s Play,” a distinguished work in the Black canon with the ability to stir healthy dialogue.
“The understanding and insight this play provides for everybody across the board helps bridge cultural gaps, brings people together and has healing power,” said Lee. “Nothing in this play is only what it appears to be. Everything in this play is nuanced and poetic. It is truth told with clarity.”
‘A profound wisdom’
The Chicago-based Brown received his BFA in Acting from Emerson College. His previous credits include Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Choir Boy,” Court Theatre’s “Man in the Ring” and About Face Theatre’s “Magnolia Ballet.” He also received a 2022 Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for “Cicada,” a gay-themed romantic drama he also starred in featuring Cobie Smulders (“How I Met Your Mother”) and Bowen Yang (“Saturday Night Live”).
Brown says he enjoys exploring C.J.’s sensitivity in “A Soldier’s Play.”
“C.J. is a gentle, warm spirit who knows himself very well,” he said. “He knows spirit very well, which is part of the reason why he sings the blues. His (singing) comes from a very deep place of knowing. He’s able to see people at the heart of who they are and he gets misunderstood in the show. He also marches to the beat of his own drum and has a profound wisdom and people-knowing skills. He brings such life into this play and is able to be a huge light in the show.”
Looking back on his time at Stivers, he is grateful for the encouragement and direction he received from Angela Tomaselli, former head of the Stivers Theatre Department. Appearing in such productions as “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Splendor in the Grass,” in addition to studying plays from a broad range of playwrights, helped formulate his love of the craft. He is scheduled to appear at Stivers Feb. 15 to meet with students and discuss his career.
“Angela really got us in tune to language and understanding text,” he recalled. “We went on field trips to see plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde but we were also in class reading August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry and Charles Fuller, who were treated just as importantly as Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. I learned a lot about language and a lot about Black voices. Having the opportunity to see myself in certain roles, such as Stanley Kowalski, I knew at a young age what I was capable of doing. It has just made me more confident about all the work I have been able to do until now.”
Ripped from the headlines
Fuller’s play is firmly planted in the racially segregated World War II era but current events have suddenly elevated its impact as a thought-provoking cautionary tale. The tragic death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, whose beating after a traffic stop by five Black Memphis police officers was captured on video, is not lost on Brown, who feels more compelled to tell this story than ever before.
“I can’t possibly fathom how you can beat the life out of a Black man that looks just like you,” he said. “But it’s the systems and structures we live in, the foundation of Blacks being taught that we are not human or we are less than. And it’s the same thing Charles Fuller is exploring – Black men attacking Black men. You can’t lose sight of the system we live under that is able to make us target each other. This play is more relevant now than ever before. None of this stuff is over and done with. We’re still in it.”
“This play still resonates 40 years after it was first presented because the truth is the truth – though things have changed America still remains the same,” added Lee. “The self-hatred that’s been instilled in people of color for hundreds of years is still the truth. What the play is about, what the play speaks to in terms of the African American experience in the United States, is the truth. It’s a history lesson that provides some insight into the African American experience for everybody.”
HOW TO GO
What: “A Soldier’s Play”
Where: Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton
When: Feb. 14-19; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Call 937-228-3630 or visit daytonlive.org
FYI: Directly following the performances on Wednesday, Feb. 15 and Thursday, Feb. 16, patrons are invited to stay for “Conversations with the Cast” hosted by Dayton Live board member Rodney Veal where they can ask questions and interact with the cast.
In addition, the Charles Fuller Experience, an exhibit featuring photographs and biographical information about Fuller’s career, will be seen in the reception room on the mezzanine level of the Victoria Theatre. Original artwork inspired by Fuller will also be on display. Artists from local collective Scripted in Black have created pieces to honor the playwright for this exhibit. A “Meet the Artist” Reception is planned after the evening performance on Saturday, Feb. 18, where patrons can talk with the artists from Scripted in Black about their work and inspiration.