2nd Star Productions grew up on musicals and comedy. Now 18 years old, the company has matured. You’ll see the change — and you’ll want to, I promise you — in 2nd Star’s first production in a new playhouse.
A Soldier’s Play, at the Charis Center for the Arts, is serious drama arising from social discord. It’s the kind of significant show you’d expect from Dignity Players, the Annapolis social justice-focused company about to go dormant. Rated R for mature audiences, Charles Fuller’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner is historical fiction rooted in racial tension and mystery. 2nd Star brings a dynamite cast of fresh talent to its production.
The time is 1944. The setting is a segregated army base in Louisiana, where 90 percent of the soldiers are black enlisted men warehoused away from combat. One of the black soldiers has been murdered. Circumstances are puzzling. The story follows the investigation of his death.
Sgt. Waters (Cristopher M. Dinwiddie), was admired for his high standards and impeccable record — and resented for his inflexibility. When his body is found in the woods, his commanding officer, Capt. Taylor (Dan Kavanaugh), refuses to accept the obvious explanation of a Klan attack. He demands a full investigation. But when black lawyer Capt. Davenport (Kevin Sockwell) is assigned to the case, Taylor worries that Davenport’s color will stand in the way of his investigation. In fact, Davenport’s race and conviction make him just the man to navigate the ins and outs of the black enlisted men’s barracks and the white officer corps. What follows is a series of testimonies, related in flashbacks, illustrating the sergeant’s mercurial temperament, racial self-loathing and self-important authority over a company of elite baseball players.
Among Sgt. Waters’ soldiers are Pvt. Wilkie (Benny Pope), a former sergeant demoted for being drunk on duty; Pvt. Smalls (Antoine Bragg), a surly malcontent; Pvt. Henson (Daley Fitzgerald Gunter), a hunky ladies’ man and dispassionate observer of barracks’ politics; PFC Peterson (Reginald Grier), the quiet one; Pvt. C.J. Memphis (Ramone Williams), a gifted blues musician and gentle soul from the South; and Cpl. Cobb (David E. Johnson Jr.), C.J.’s best friend. Cpl. Ellis (Frederick Henderson) is the sergeant’s eager right-hand man. Two bigoted white officers, Lt. Byrd (Lawrence Griffin) and Capt. Wilcox (Ethan Goldberg), are dragged into the investigation as the last to see Sgt. Waters alive. Davenport considers the whole crew to have motives and means for the murder.
In this vast and youthful cast, only the three white actors — Kavanaugh, Griffin and Goldberg — are familiar to Anne Arundel audiences. The rest, a remarkably talented and fit group justly cast as athletes, make the barracks hum with palpable camaraderie. All were recruited by the show’s producer, Cheramie Jackson. Dinwiddie stuns as Sgt. Waters, a role he played for Prince George’s Hard Bargain Players, and Johnson’s soulful melodies haunt long after curtain.
New faces and content aren’t the only surprises consequent on 2nd Star’s accommodation of the new three-show scheduling restriction imposed by its long-time home, Bowie Playhouse, to accommodate a fourth residential company.
Long acclaimed for ornate sets, 2nd Star now offers a minimalist set of black platforms without special effects in the Charis Center’s primitive accommodations. It doesn’t matter, given the energy onstage.
You’ll be on edge the full two hours.
Director and set designer: Jane B. Wingard. Producer: Cheramie J. Jackson. Lights: Rick Schultz. Sound: Ramone Williams. Costumes: Wingard and Jackson.
Playing thru March 9. FSa 8pm, Su 3pm at Charis Center for the Arts, 13010 8th St., between the post office and fire department in Bowie’s historic district. $15 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-757-5700; www.2ndstarproductions.com.