Sgt. Vernon Waters was a man few people liked. A light-skinned black man, he felt black men and women who didn’t conform to white behaviors had no place in society — especially not in the Army. So, in 1944 at Fort Neal in Louisiana, someone shot and killed him as he screamed “They still hate you!”
Thus begins Charles Fuller’s 1981 award-winning play, “A Soldier’s Play.” The show, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982, is set to be performed by the Hard Bargain Players at the Theater in the Woods in Accokeek.
“There’s been a lot of talk about ‘A Soldier’s Play’ — who or what is the soldier,” said director David Thomas. “Some say that the play is about a specific soldier named Sgt. Waters. Others says that the play is about black soldiers in general. … I think it is a play that talks about black-on-black in America, white-on-black in America. It’s certainly a detective story … but I think it really speaks to, again, how people of the same and different races treat each other.”
The story focuses in on Capt. Richard Davenport, himself a black man, who is sent to investigate the death of Waters. Could it have been the Ku Klux Klan? Perhaps bigoted white soldiers? In the end, it all comes back to Waters and how he treated his men.
With a cast of 12, Thomas said directing the show with so many people was a big concern.
“That’s difficult to do, so I was concerned about being able to cast the play,” Thomas said. “I did some advance ‘If we do this play would you like to act in it’ [questions]. So there was a little bit of concern about casting. My ongoing concern is when you have a cast of 12 busy, active men, getting all of those men together at one time can be difficult.”
There were times, according to Thomas, where other actors would have to stand in for missing actors.
“Early on, [it was] frustrating ... primarily because of trying to get everyone together,” Thomas said. “What we ended up doing was an awful lot of scene work which people just bought into. We had members of the cast who stood in putting everything out there for characters who weren’t there. So to see that, to see people willing to say, ‘I can’t come Tuesday, but I can come down on Wednesday and stand in for somebody,’ was just phenomenal.”
As for the cast’s acting ability, Thomas said there was absolutely no question or concern.
“The talent level of the members of this cast, in my eyes, is superior,” Thomas said. “Some of these people have acted professionally and do act professionally. Some of them are just thrilled about the play and working with each other. … It’s been a joy to work with them. Again, the frustrations come from getting all 12 busy men together on a regular schedule — it can be a little frustrating.”
Luckily, Thomas had a little help in dealing with the frustrations. Dave Costa, who is the assistant director for the show, is no stranger to the Hard Bargain Players.
“He was the director for ‘Foxfire’ here,” said Thomas. “He was also the assistant director when we did ‘Equus.’ He was a tremendous help and it was a pleasure working with Dave on this show.”
Although there is a lot of racial tension in the script, Thomas said there were no cuts made.
“The script is amazing and the writing of Fuller … everything in the play ties to everything in the play,” Thomas said. “And it’s very theatrical, which I kind of liked, and it can be done very simply. It’s theatrical, but it’s simple.”
Themes of race and racism are prevalent throughout the play, as one might imagine about a setting in the 1940s Deep South. Almost 70 years later, Thomas said he feels the themes of the show are still relevant today.
“I don’t want to speak of a community that I’m not a part of, but some of the characters in the play at this point in time can see relevance in that,” Thomas said. “[The actors have] talked with their parents and grandparents and they get stories. I got a story from my dad, who was in the United States Marine Corps in 1959 in Texas. He and three other officers, one of whom happened to be a black female, went into an on-base club and were told they could not be served as long as that black female officer was sitting at that table and that was 1959. Other cast members have gotten stories like that.”
Thomas said he hopes audiences walk away with a good appreciation for the show, but he also wants people to see there is some talent in the community as well.
“On that stage … our community is represented on that stage,” Thomas said. “There are actors of color on that stage. There are white actors on that stage. There are people of color and white people working on the production. I think what I’d like [audiences] to say is, ‘This is our community — Look at the talent we have in this community. This is amazing.’ I would like ultimately — although I don’t know if this will happen — for those same people to come back and experience live theater in Southern Maryland because live theater in Southern Maryland can be pretty darned good.”