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Sumter Little Theatre presents murder mystery that explores racism, right vs. wrong

Pulitzer-winning 'A Soldier's Play' opens Thursday

BY IVY MOORE
Features contributor
Posted 2/11/20

A Pulitzer Prize-winning play with themes that remain relevant will open the second half of Sumter Little Theatre's 2019-20 season on Thursday.

"A Soldier's Play" by Charles Fuller is set on a U.S. Army base in Louisiana in 1944. The play is …

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Sumter Little Theatre presents murder mystery that explores racism, right vs. wrong

Pulitzer-winning 'A Soldier's Play' opens Thursday

Posted

A Pulitzer Prize-winning play with themes that remain relevant will open the second half of Sumter Little Theatre's 2019-20 season on Thursday.

"A Soldier's Play" by Charles Fuller is set on a U.S. Army base in Louisiana in 1944. The play is currently running at New York's Roundabout Theatre.

Eric Bultman, SLT's executive director, directs the drama for the second time since he acted in it in 1984. He described the play as a "murder mystery (set) at a time when the military was segregated."

At the top of the show, Bultman said, Sgt. Vernon Walters, a black man, is shot to death by an unseen person. His last words are "They still hate you."

"The story follows the investigation of the murder," Bultman said. "Because of the (racial) climate at the time, there's the assumption that Walters was killed by the (Ku Klux) Klan in Louisiana. There are too many assumptions that affect the investigation."

The focus of the play is the investigation, which pits a white lawyer against a black one.

"'A Soldier's Play' builds to a definite climax, when we find out who actually killed the sergeant," Bultman said. "It's not who you expect."

Brandon Graves, who plays Private James Wilkie, said, "A key clue in the investigation is Walters' attitude toward the men in his platoon and his attitude in general. He feels blacks are holding their race back and talks about internal strife. He sees improvements but still feels there is much to be done. It's very relevant in an election year."

Graves' experience at SLT includes roles in "Five Guys Named Moe," "The Producers" and "La Cage aux Folles." Because of some "strong language and sexual innuendo," he said he thinks it is appropriate for those from middle school age and up.

Carlos Walters, in his first role, plays Sgt. Walters, whom Bultman said was a bully who was "universally hated." Though his character is killed at the outset, Carlos Walters appears throughout the play in flashbacks, he said.

Sgt. Walters "is not looked on favorably," he said. "His agenda is to improve the black race, and he feels he is going to be its savior."

The actor, who served 24 years in the military, declined to give clues to the mystery and instead had praise for his fellow cast members.

"They bring a lot of genuineness and excitement to the play," he said. "They bring out the best in me."

Michael Keenan, also a military retiree, plays Capt. Charles Taylor, "who has never seen a black officer or met a Southerner. He plays off of Capt. Richard Davenport, a black lawyer" played by William Paul Brown, who had a leading role in last year's "Fences."

"Since Taylor didn't really know black people, a lot of tension lies between him and Davenport," Keenan said.

George Carruth, who describes his character, Lt. Byrd, as "a minor antagonist," said the show has maintained its popularity "because it's not a play about racism only - it's about men struggling to do what's right, to understand what is right."

In addition to the Pulitzer, "A Soldier's Play" won many other awards, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Play for its inaugural season in 1981.

Cast members include Donallen Phillips, Emmanuel Weston, David Contee, Clifton Montgomery, Tony Smalls, Sean Hatcher and Jack Burnett. Technical director is Michael Leone, stage manager is Erik Sperber, costumes are by Sylvia Pickell and set painting is by Kendall Jones.