Racism’s Psychological Effects

Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “A Soldier’s Play,” finally makes its Broadway debut. An intense murder mystery that digs deep into the racism in our country has found its day.

Set in a segregated U.S. army camp in Louisiana during WWII, an ensemble of 12 actors portray the soldiers, mostly African American. It opens on the murder of Sergeant Waters, played with alcoholic self-loathing by David Alan Grier. Grier certainly brings the baggage of internalized racism to this role. As Waters, he treats his men brutally, usurps their sense of dignity, and destroys the weak among them. He’s out to save his race, apparently.

Directed by Kenny Leon, the action is focused and intense. Regardless of lengthy exposition, the pacing is clean and rapid. The politics of racism as we see it here has such presence that it’s hard to objectify. But it runs through these deeply human experiences, murder being one.

It’s astonishing to see the sense of dedication and patriotism these young soldiers display even though they are giving their lives for a country that has never protected theirs. Each of Fuller’s characters are beautifully drawn.

Most of the first act revolves around the success of the camps’ baseball team at a time when the Negro league was at a height of popularity. Curiously, they are all undermined by a player named Peterson, artfully portrayed by NFL All-Pro Nnamdi Asomugha.

J. Alphonse Nicholson plays the role of Peterson’s victim delicately and sensitively.

A stressed-out white captain cleverly played by Jerry O’Connell oversees the Waters murder case. When Captain Richard Davenport, an uncontrived Blair Underwood enters the picture, the scales of justice shift.

He is one powerful actor. As the lawyer Davenport, he leads the courtroom drama, interviewing everyone who was there at the time of the murder. His observations and conclusions he reports directly to the audience. Underwood’s oracular style is honest and spellbinding.

There isn’t anything simplistic about this particular murder mystery. It’s expressed simply and it’s performed eloquently, but the conclusions are baffling.

Through the process of this investigation a racist, Sergeant Waters, is disclosed. The murderers, however, are equally threatened by their own racial identity. It’s not even about black and white. It’s more about the psychological effects of racism. It’s about hatred.

Boom

An unusually engaging piece of theater, “Boom,” at 59E59 St Theaters takes on the Baby Boomer generation from a Gen Xer’s point of view. That is the perspective of the writer/director/performer Rick Miller.

A consummate researcher, Miller’s selection of archival imagery, data and anecdotes allows him to paint post-WWII society in quick, colorful strokes. At the same time, the performer tells very personal stories culled from interviews he conducted with boomers. These personal revelations support sociological truths, and wed the human and the cultural with finesse.

Plot wise, there are a few recurring characters that help the narrator weave a story. It’s a mashup of a few quirky boomers with celebrities — Perry Como to David Bowie — and politicians, Winston Churchill to Lyndon Johnson, and all the news people and gossips columnists who reported on them.

At the end of the 90-minute whirligig of a show, the personal stories come together, bringing resolution to this entertaining history lesson. The intimate connection that’s made between two central characters, Miller expressed in a post-show talk back, is based on interviews with his parents.

Performed in a cylinder, a tight space indeed, Miller does the time capsule thing with extraordinary aplomb. He’s a great impressionist, imitating Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano, and both Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Many scenes are acted out through shadow play.

While the production is minimalist, the use of video and projections (Ardon Bess and David Leclerc) and lighting (Bruno Matte) unifies a multitude of diverse elements. Singing “The Eve of Destruction,” for instance, Miller is accompanied by slides reporting the USSR’s first walk in space, followed three months later by the U.S. spacewalk.

The production utilizes intense messaging. And it renders a sense of society then, in a way that sparks nostalgia, but more importantly sheds light on the times we live in now.

As a culture critic, Miller’s observations are well chosen. A character named Rudi opines, “Kennedy’s inauguration was a lot like Obama’s first inauguration. Full of hope that would very soon dissolve.”

And as an observer of people, he also hits on some primal issues — family outings to the A&W drive-in and a teenager with her hula hoop carry a different kind of immediacy to hiding under the desk in elementary school.

Miller has been performing this show across the country for several years. This is his New York debut.

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