Military Murder Mystery That Isn’t Black-and-White at Loft Ensemble

a soldiers play loft ensemble theater Rah Johnson as Cpt. Davenport, Tony Williams as Sgt. Waters and Chris Oliver as Pvt. Wilkie

Reviewed by Guy Picot

updated 8.29.17 10:25 pm

Loft Ensemble‘s A Soldier’s Play, is the second L.A. mounting of Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winner this summer (It was also produced as an independent, unaffiliated production during the Hollywood Fringe Festival) and it’s easy to see why its themes seem particularly relevant at the moment.

Loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, the play is set in 1944 at Fort Neal, a segregated army camp in Louisiana, where a black sergeant has been murdered. Captain Davenport, a black army officer (Rah Johnson) is sent down to investigate, much to the annoyance of Captain Taylor (Cameron Britten) , the white West Point graduate who commands the company. At first, suspicion seems to fall on the local Ku Klux Klan, but soon the waters become murkier.

Through interviews with suspects and witnesses (which segue into flashbacks), we learn about the tensions within the camp. The soldiers are waiting to be shipped to Europe and are being kept busy as the camp’s trophy-winning baseball team. We learn that the late sergeant Waters (Tony Williams) was far from popular with his men and bullied those he disliked, particularly the southerners who he felt were not good ambassadors of their race.

The timelessness of the barracks and the costumes make it very easy to forget that the story we’re hearing is set more than seventy years ago. The banter and horse-play between the men rings true, their alliances and rivalries revealing themselves to Davenport as he gains the trust of the troop, who had already just lost one of their number to suicide.

Without a friend or confidante, Davenport speaks directly to the audience as his investigation gets him ever closer to the truth. The final unveiling of the culprit is satisfying, but this is really a study of racial tensions disguised as a whodunnit; the attitude each of the soldiers has to his color ends up being the key to the mystery.

Johnson has a quiet authority as Davenport, determined to get to the truth even if the top brass would rather he didn’t. Williams is a study in resentment and misplaced anger as Waters, lashing out at his charges while vainly trying to fit in with the white officers.

It’s hard to pick stand-outs from the uniformly good ensemble but Jefferson Reid and Ryan Lacey (both returning to the roles they played in the Hollywood Fringe production) were particularly strong. Cameron Britten, as Captain Taylor, maybe had the most interesting journey as he recognized and battled his own racism, coming to respect Davenport as a fellow officer.

Co-directed by Mitch Rosander and Tor Brown, the production moves swiftly and clearly, aided by effective sound and lighting.

It’s worth getting in your seat early to enjoy the pre-show parade chants.

Photo credit Amanda Chambers: Rah Johnson as Cpt. Davenport, Tony Williams as Sgt. Waters and Chris Oliver as Pvt. Wilkie

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