Home #Hwoodtimes A Soldier’s Insight into A Soldier’s Play at the Ahmanson Theatre

A Soldier’s Insight into A Soldier’s Play at the Ahmanson Theatre

The Company of the National Tour of “A Soldier's Play” playing at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre May 23 through June 25, 2023. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

How would a decorated soldier who served in Vietnam respond to a new version of A Soldier’s Play? Would the Center Theatre Group production live up to his reality-based expectations?

By John Lavitt

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 05/30/23 – As the source material for the Academy Award-nominated film, A Soldier’s Story (1984), which starred Denzel Washington, Adolph Caesar, and Howard E. Rollins, Jr., A Soldier’s Play is considered a racial landmark in theatrical history. Using a military setting to create a dramatic mystery about prejudice and segregation in America during the Second World War, a significant question that needs to be asked is how the story holds up after almost four decades. Also, given that the production opened right before Memorial Day, does the traveling production of A Soldier’s Play at the Ahmanson Theatre do justice to the military setting, providing a realistic drama that reflects reality?

Given such a question, I stepped outside of my skin as a critic and decided to bring my friend Brian Delate as my plus-one guest to the press performance of the play. An acclaimed American actor and writer, Brian Delate has had noted supporting roles in The Truman Show, The Shawshank Redemption, and many other films, television shows, and theatrical productions. More importantly, in this context, Brian is a Vietnam War veteran who served his country with honor in one of America’s most challenging conflicts. During his service, he was awarded the Bronze Star. At the same time, Brian is a humble soul who would most likely not want me to point this distinction out.

Before entering the theatre, Brian and I sat in the beautiful Los Angeles Music Center. It was a lovely night in the big city, and the spring evening was cooling off the day. I asked him, “Having been a soldier, what do you feel as you walk into a fictional play about military life? What are you excited about, and what are you potentially worried about?”

Taking a deep breath and gathering his thoughts, Brian replied, “I’m excited about the prospect of learning something about the experience of being a soldier that I don’t already know. My concern or fear would be that the work wouldn’t be truthful. I worry that the playwright might exploit stereotypes to create drama and conflict that is not respectful or authentic to the true reality of military life. For example, did someone teach the actors how to salute properly? Such specifics are important because traditions are important.”

Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of “A Soldier’s Play” playing at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre May 23 through June 25, 2023.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Entering the theatre, Brian and I were excited to experience this performance. Although we both do our best to keep our expectations in check, we were hoping for something special. Unfortunately, our hopes were not matched by reality. Although most of the audience appeared to enjoy the show, we did not. Given the play’s subject matter, I do not want to go into too many details from a critic’s perspective in the age of wokeness. Moreover, I will let Brian speak for himself from his own experience.

Given my role, however, it is essential to point out why I did not enjoy the play. First, although Norm Lewis, who plays Captain Richard Davenport, the African American military lawyer who investigates the shooting of African American Sergeant Vernon C. Walters (a well-cast Eugene Lee), is an outstanding actor, he is not suitable for this part. The simple truth is that Norm Lewis is almost twice the age of the part as it is written in the play. For example, in the movie, Howard E. Rollins was in his early thirties but looked to be in his late twenties. In contrast, Norm Lewis is fifty-nine years old. Thus, he lacks the greenness that makes the character so effective in the film. In A Soldier’s Story, Captain Richard Davenport is battling against prejudice and his own lack of experience.

My second point of criticism will be illuminated in greater detail by Brian’s reaction to the play. In a dramatic mystery where lives are on the line, you must care about the actors to be invested in the play. Watching A Soldier’s Play, I honestly did not find myself invested in any of the characters or the outcomes of their story. There was a certain precision of emotional expression missing in the presentation. The cast’s energy and passion were undeniable, but they stayed at a constant level. The lack of modulation made for a lack of impact.


Brian Delate at _A Soldier’s Play at the Ahmanson Theatre (Photo: John Lavitt)

When I asked Brian what he thought after the show, he said, “I was disappointed because the representation of military life was nothing like I experienced firsthand. When you are in basic training, the stereotype of everyone screaming at each other and superior officers in the faces of their subordinates is true because it reflects the crucible of the experience. However, these men were not in basic training, but it felt that way from the beginning. It was like a radio that was always turned up to the highest volume. After a while, it becomes nothing more than sound blaring, and the music lacks any real impact.”

Brian revealed deeper into his thoughts: “I recall military life as being much more textured than what was presented on stage. Many of the performances felt too theatrical. For example, a moment of respect between an officer and a private was turned into something like a mini dance. I felt disconnected from the story because I was unable to connect with the soldiers’ lives and felt that they were more distinguished in the written descriptions than in their bearing. I truly wanted to care about what was happening on stage, but I felt untethered from that dramatic reality, and my mind kept drifting away.”

Indeed, Brian Delate captures the letdown of this production so well. When actors represent soldiers, the reality of military life must be a priority. If one part of that reality is too heightened, it warps the rest of the drama. A Soldier’s Play is an admirable effort that does not pay off in the end because the textured precision of a military drama is overwhelmed by loud vexations, exclamations, and demonstrations.

Photos by Joan Marcus and John Lavitt