Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Soldier's Play" and its film companion, "A Soldier's Story," have been so star-studded over the years that people forget it's an ensemble piece. Denzel Washington, Howard Rollins, Samuel Jackson, David Alan Grier and Courtney Vance are just some of the celebrities associated with the title.
Add to this roster Broadway star Norm Lewis, best known for playing Javert in "Les Misérables" and the Phantom in "The Phantom of the Opera." He is out on tour with the show, which begins its Twin Cities run Tuesday at the Fitzgerald Theater as part of Broadway at the Ordway.
"I feel like I'm one of the luckiest guys in the world to get to hone my chops on the drama side," Lewis said via phone from Philadelphia, where the production was playing last week. "That being said, there's some musicology to it and audiences will be in for a nice surprise."
A murder mystery set in the South during World War II, "A Soldier's Play" unspools a potent mix of patriotism, segregation and self-hatred. Sgt. Vernon C. Waters, who is Black, has been killed in a place where the Klan is active. Military lawyer Capt. Richard Davenport, played by Lewis, has come from the North to investigate. As he tries to find the killer, his inquiries of the men in Waters' company take him to unexpected places and suspects.
The interviews also create a checkered picture of the dead sergeant as he comes to life in flashbacks. A stern, sometimes vicious taskmaster, Waters haunts the play like a ghost.
"What's interesting about Waters is that he dies in the first three minutes of the play," said Eugene Lee, who played Waters on Broadway and is reprising his role on tour. "You only meet him through what other people say he was, and they're all contradictions. I'm playing someone else's truth and someone else's lies about this man."
Those contradictions manifest themselves in the man himself. For in life, Waters strove to assimilate, denying himself in order to succeed. But no matter what he did, including offering up his life in service to his nation, he came up against hard barriers.
"By trying to work his way into the system, Sgt. Waters became the system and the epitome of everything he hated," said Lee. "Even if you erase who you are and become something else, the rules are fixed. Powerful stuff."
The self-hatred theme is threaded through the story.
Cristina Angeles, who worked with Broadway director Kenny Leon on his Tony-winning production and is overseeing the tour, said that Waters' character is one thread in the nuanced fabric of Black masculinity. But it has contemporary parallels.
"In rehearsal, Kenny would jokingly refer to Sgt. Waters as Herschel Walker," Angeles said. "What do these men do as they face these blocked paths to upward mobility in this society? Who do they have to turn into and where can they find joy?"
Playwright Fuller drew on three sources for inspiration for the play: his service in the armed forces; "Billy Budd," Herman Melville's posthumous novella about a stuttering seaman accused of staging a mutiny; and his own childhood in the Philadelphia projects where Black people were denigrated.
"Sergeant Waters was a character I saw a lot of when I lived in the projects — someone who wanted to be a king in a place that didn't need a king," Fuller told American Theatre in an interview just before "A Soldier's Play" opened on Broadway in its 2020 revival. "He thought that he would be very important if he walked away from the people in the projects and pretended to be someone else."
Lee, also a playwright, originated a different role, that of Cpl. Bernard Cobb, in the original 1981 off-Broadway production. Coming back to the show four decades later has been thrilling but also heartbreaking, he said, pointing to news stories about death and other horrors visited on Black bodies.
"Some social conditions have changed but not enough from the 1940s to the '80s to today," Lee said. "On a subliminal level, the play offers historical truths that sadly make it timeless."
There also is a camaraderie as he goes out on the road with a company of mostly Black men, a rarity these days in the theater. And audience responses to the play have made company members optimistic.
"When art is well done, it has healing power," Lee said. "It's hard to hate something that you understand. What this play does is provide insights for somebody to go home and sit with themselves and say, 'I've got to change.' It gives new information and people can't stay the same."
'A Soldier's Play'
By: Charles Fuller. Directed by Kenny Leon with Cristina Angeles.
Where: Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Tickets: $42.65-$96.45. 651-224-4222 or ordway.org.