Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” The answers the poem puts forward are varied, suggesting people cope with disappointment in different ways.
But the last line of the piece says, “Or does it explode?” In a way, Hughes’ poem is a kind of blueprint for Charles H. Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “A Soldier’s Play,” because the play examines the responses of a number of African-American servicemen in World War II to the racism that pervades their lives in general and Fort Neal, La., in particular. It’s a gripping story, and it’s being given a strong performance by Classic Theater Guild.
’A Soldier’s Play’
WHERE: Classic Theater Guild, Proctors (Fenimore Gallery), 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: Through Sunday
HOW MUCH: $17.50-$14.50
MORE INFO: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
African-American Sgt. Waters (Michael Lake) has been shot. The black soldiers chalk it up to the Ku Klux Klan, but white Capt. Charles Taylor (Patrick White) is not so sure. When a black lawyer, Capt. Davenport (Mike Banks) is sent to investigate, Taylor’s prejudice is but Davenport’s first obstacle in getting to the bottom of the murder.
In a series of flashbacks, the various soldiers Davenport calls to his office for interrogation recount their interactions with Waters, a disliked man who is both the victim of racism and a perpetrator of it, especially toward Pvt. Memphis (Jason Tillery), a young black man Waters considers an unacceptable representative of his race.
Each of the other soldiers handles bosses and racists in different ways: remaining quiet, talking back, talking behind backs, getting drunk, etc. — parallels to the Hughes poem. But it’s the violence that finally explodes that makes the play especially dramatic and ultimately sad.
The technical values of the production are simple: a curtainless stage, with a desk, chair, and three cots; an upstage wall of camouflage (barely masking racial slurs). The lighting is generally effective in revealing change of place and time.
The acting, then, is everything, and the large, all-male cast delivers. On Sunday there were a few slow spots, but the actors — under Karen Christina Jones’ keen-eyed direction — draw vivid portraits of men at war, both home and abroad, and maintain the tension.
For example, Christopher Fleming as PFC Peterson shows justifiable rage — the kind that makes you worry about him. Arthur Butler as Pvt. Henson stays cool and lighthearted when he needs to, but he knows exactly what’s going on at all times. Nice work. And Barry Walston convincingly plays the funny and kind-hearted Cpl. Cobb.
In lead roles, White — his voice high-pitched and snide — effectively creates a self-absorbed commander who may yet have an ounce of humanity in him. Lake’s Sergeant Waters chillingly reveals the psychological toll of racism: viciousness and self-loathing. And Banks is simply remarkable as Davenport. Whether he’s dealing with bad-ass white soldiers or confused black soldiers, or addressing the audience with an analysis of the situation, Banks’ Davenport is the model of self-respect in neat creases, shades, and elocution. He is the one character we need to identify with, and Banks allows us to.
On April 18 at The Egg, the playwright will be at a gala fundraiser for the new African American Cultural Center in Albany. Call 635-3086. But first get to Schenectady.