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A Play About Racism’s Aftershocks Returns With New Resonance

“A Soldier’s Play,” running through Sunday at Theater 80, has been faithfully restaged for the 50th anniversary of the Negro Ensemble Company, an incubator and sanctuary for ambitious black actors and playwrights since its founding by Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks and Gerald S. Krone in 1967. The company produced the original run.


Denzel Washington, center, with, from left, foreground, Adolph Caesar and Peter Friedman, in the 1981 Negro Ensemble Company production of “Soldier’s Play.”

Bert Andrews

Set during World War II on a military base in Klan-occupied, lynching-addled Louisiana, the play — which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and spawned an Oscar-nominated film adaptation — works backward from the mysterious murder of one character, Sgt. Vernon C. Waters, by scrupulously disseminating jigsawlike testimony from the troops who were in his charge.

The cast of soldiers, an all-black ensemble that included Mr. Washington and Samuel L. Jackson before their mainstream efflorescence, comprises men who are both suspects and, each in their own way, victims — fighting to preserve a sense of self-worth thousands of miles away from a whites-only war.

The Times recently spoke to three original cast members — Mr. Washington (Pfc. Melvin Peterson), James Pickens Jr. (Cpl. Ellis) and Peter Friedman (Cpt. Taylor) — as well as three from the new production: Adrain Washington (Pfc. Peterson), Gil Tucker (Sgt. Waters) and Horace Glasper (Pvt. Louis Henson), along with the revival’s director, Charles Weldon. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.


The cast of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” rehearsing at Theater 80 in Manhattan.

Vincent Tullo for The New York Times

What drew you to “A Soldier’s Play”?

DENZEL WASHINGTON It wasn’t like I read it and made a decision about whether it was something I might want to do or not. It was Douglas Turner Ward calling, and it was the Negro Ensemble Company and I just wanted to be in it.

GIL TUCKER To me, it was the equivalent of black Broadway.

ADRAIN WASHINGTON I saw the movie when I was a kid. Back then, movies that told stories of the African-American plight weren’t really common, so when you saw one, you would go back and do the work and find out more.

DENZEL WASHINGTON We just felt like we were a part of something that was special, and little did I know how big it was going to be. You look back now and guys like Jim Pickens and a guy named Sam Jackson — we were all just working actors glad to be making $300 a week.

The material was written nearly 40 years ago, and the action takes place almost 40 years before that. Can it still retain its power?

DENZEL WASHINGTON I think it’s timeless. A great play holds up. It can mean a different thing in a different time.

JAMES PICKENS JR. It was a story that’s universal, how hate and self-loathing and the loss of innocence affects the body human.

HORACE GLASPER It’s a staple in our culture. You want to know how a black person may feel? Not even necessarily in the military, but on their job, or walking down the street or standing in line at the D.M.V.? This play goes there.

One of the themes of the play is how people gain power by standing on the backs of the disempowered. How do you see it relating to our current cultural and political moment?

PICKENS JR. You look at all the political rhetoric that’s being batted back and forth by the conservatives and the liberals, and at the end of the day I think it’s fueled by fear and insecurities — the sense of losing something that you think you have. The play really rings true to that sentiment.

GLASPER We’re still being oppressed. The Jim Crow laws? It’s the same thing that’s going on with the police that’s shooting us down in the streets right now. It just switches faces.

TUCKER People feel like it’s all right to judge other people because of the color of their skin, because of the place that they come from. We fought for years to get past that point, and now all of a sudden we’re back there.

The Army never officially connects Sgt. Waters’s murder to racism. Are we better at talking about race than we were in 1981?

DENZEL WASHINGTON Some things have gotten better, some things haven’t.

CHARLES WELDON In a strange way, it’s like these black athletes who are kneeling to protest something that has nothing to do with the flag. But it gets co-opted: “How can you do this? You’re making millions of dollars and you’re protesting the flag?”

ADRAIN WASHINGTON Instead of the problem coming to the forefront, it’s “You’ll lose your job.” How far are you going to go before you’re backed into a corner and you admit that there’s a serious problem?

PETER FRIEDMAN Let’s keep talking. Anything that we can do to foster more conversation has got to be good. It’s up to a boil now; we might as well keep it going.

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