I shook hands with director Wilbert L. Williams after A Soldier's Play to congratulate him on such a fine casting job. Lately, I've come to appreciate more how critical casting is to the success a production.
For example, veteran actor and Big Easy Theatre Award winner, Harold X. Evans, gives a disquieting performance in the play's most difficult role, as a black man prejudiced against other black people, especially the "Yah suh, Massah, step-n-fetchit type" (his words). Evans, an army sergeant, is hated by his all-black soldiers, and his murder causes little shock or remorse. Yet, his murder and its investigation are the crux of A Soldier's Play.
Lead actor, Anthony Bean, Artistic Director of the eponymous Anthony Bean Community Theater, hands over the directorial reigns to Wilbert Williams, and appears on stage for a change. I thought he did a convincing job as a black Army officer in 1945, when this play occurs. He was formal, never letting down his guard, always with something to prove. My only criticism is that Bean turned on anger pretty often, not always warranted, and only in one volume.
Co-star Nick Thompson has great chemistry with Bean. At first I questioned why the director would cast such a young man against an older actor with as much physical gravity as Bean, when they are supposedly the same rank, Captain. But then I discerned that in 1945, a black officer would take much longer to reach the rank of Captain than a white officer who had graduated from "The Point." Thompson holds his own. After the play, his wife, Jessie Terrebonne, said "I don't mind the crewcut now that I've seen him act." It's his cheekbones that carry the look.
The young actors who play the soldiers are good in ensemble, especially Dewey Moorman, who plays CJ Memphis, said "step-n-fetchit" who is antogonized by Harold Evans. You will remember the baritone of his speaking voice. Moorman's facial expressions were hysterical, but I thought him too "flouncy" at times for a soldier. He has wonderful comedic instincts. Just reign it in a little, and butch it up, Mary.
The set is another gem by Chad Talkington (le meow meow!) Not as elaborate as others I've seen recently by him (Sugar Babies and The Pillowman) but serviceable and convincing as a barracks.
Sound was not always good, especially for a small audience in such a large space. I saw mics hanging over the 3 main areas of the set, but perhaps more volume on the mics, more speakers, or simply more projection from the actors, especially the youngest ones? Maybe there were enough speakers after all, since I heard the music too well. The sudden jump in volume during segues was occasionally jarring, especially when I'm leaning forward, straining to hear the actors from the third row. But I enjoyed the recorded blues guitar used for the musical segues. They added a touch of period "Southern-ness" and moodiness to the drama. Plus I dig the Delta blues.
The friend I saw the play with was formerly in the military, and he critiqued the uniforms, the lack of military formality, and all the medals on Anthony Bean's jacket. "Bean was very casual in his salutes." Which does seem unlikely for a black officer of his time, who must be twice the officer as his white counterparts. "He would not be so decorated." Bean was festooned. I suggested to my friend that Bean's character wore all the medals because Bean is the Artistic Director. But until my friend pointed them out, these criticisms were lost on me. I bought the illusion.