‘A Soldier’s Play’ takes on racism, military honor

Clifford Graeme directs Obba Babatunde, Oscar Best, Nick and Stabile in the play that opens Sept. 10.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

In 1981, Charles Fuller’s drama “A Soldier’s Play,” was staged in New York by the Negro Ensemble Company and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play and an Obie for Distinguished Ensemble Performance.

The play, set in 1944 on a Louisiana Army base, begins as a simple murder mystery and quickly becomes an emotional tangle of ambition, bigotry and deconstructed racial stereotypes as a black officer uncovers how racism influences the behaviors and ideals of men.

Nearly 30 years later, local director Graeme Clifford is taking on “A Soldier’s Play” for the Malibu Stage Company, set to open next week. Clifford said he was eager to tackle the play from “an outsider’s perspective,” because he was not raised with the sort of “casual racism” he sees in American society (Clifford is British).

“Everyone thought that by the 21st century, we’d move beyond institutional racism, but it never goes away,” Clifford said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “We’ve progressed beyond the segregated military of 1944, but we see this issue in so many societal levels of today.”

“A Soldier’s Play” has greater complexity because much of the bigotry in the play is exemplified by an African American sergeant who loathes men of his own race whom he feels play to stereotypical expectations of white men. Sergeant Waters is revealed to be a man who finds that the only power allowed him by white men lies in his military service.

Clifford sees racism’s ugly influence pervasive in the media, citing the recent resignation of talk show host Laura Schlessinger for her repeated use of a racial epithet and belittlement of a black female caller to her show.

“I think Obama’s election was a catalyst for resurgent racial hostility in this country,” Clifford said. “And I don’t think it will be resolved in my lifetime.”

Clifford has always liked to engage in “difficult stuff that says something,” he said, whether on stage or screen. He directed Jessica Lange’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 1982 film, “Frances,” about actress Francis Farmer, who was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, largely because, Clifford said, she was “different.”

Malibu Stage Company’s production of “A Soldier’s Story” stars three actors without whom Clifford said he would not have considered directing the play.

Oscar Best’s first role on stage as an actor was in “The Ghost and Josh Gibson” at the Malibu Stage Company in 2006, directed by Clifford. Best grew up an Army brat with a strict military father, so the setting of the play was familiar territory for him. His father wanted him to join the ROTC and would only allow a buzz haircut when “the other kids were wearing Afros.” Best eventually ran away from home, headed to New York and performed with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

“There’s a lot of my father coming around in these scenes,” Best said. “The more subtext we get, the more of his mannerisms I find myself doing. Dad was career military, 23 years in, and he experienced that transition from a segregated to an integrated military. His discipline was unwavering. But his rigidity, like Sergeant Waters in the play, led to our family breaking up.”

Nick Stabile, a local actor busy in film and television, was last seen in Malibu Stage Company’s “How I Learned to Drive.” He also has military ties in his background.

“My dad was in the Air Force and my grandfather was a colonel in the Army,” Stabile said. “When he died, they gave him a military funeral with full colors and a 21-gun salute. That sort of monolithic thing gave it great gravitas. And this play has great gravitas.”

Stabile plays a white captain who is appalled that a black officer has been put in charge of the base murder investigation.

“My character learns that honor and truth are sometimes thwarted when politics and racism come into the picture,” Stabile said. “He’s willing to step up to the plate and fight for Waters to the point where he would sacrifice his career advancement. He won’t devalue his integrity. But there is just seething energy in their confrontations.”

Obba Babatunde is an Emmy and Tony-nominated performer whose work is so pervasive on film, television and stage that Clifford had a delicate balancing act in finding a window to convince the actor to appear in “A Soldier’s Play.”

“The brilliance of this piece is that you can choose to think that things have changed in America, but the play so illustrates how it has not,” Babatunde said. “Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? This play might be set in a specific time period, but the issues it underscores precede that time and endure today.”

While the cast acknowledges the dramatic dynamics have given almost visceral tension in the rehearsal process, the respect and admiration for each other is as evident as their confidence in the power of the piece. Babatunde said he expects the audience to become so “enfolded” that they become another character in the play.

But Clifford also said the play is really “just a great ‘who done it?” piece of entertaining theater.

“I hope the audience comes away with a greater understanding of themselves and this country,” Clifford said.

“A Soldier’s Play” will show Sept. 10 through Oct. 17 at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway. Tickets and more information can be found online at www.malibustagecompany.org or by calling 310.589.1998.

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