“There was a lot on our shoulders with this production,” admits Blair Underwood of the Broadway revival of “A Soldier’s Play.” Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize after an Off-Broadway mounting in 1982, Charles Fuller’s moving examination of race was never produced on Broadway until Roundabout Theatre Company staged it in 2020. Underwood felt the “weight” of his duty to honor the show and earned his first ever Tony nomination for his performance. His awards career has included wins at the Grammys and Daytime Emmys. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Even though the play is over 30 years old, Underwood explains that director Kenny Leon highlighted the ways in which the story still holds importance for today’s audiences. The actor portrayed Captain Davenport, the army investigator in the murder of Sergeant Waters (David Alan Grier). The script’s examination of “the underlying issues of love and hate, self hatred,” explains Underwood, “makes it all the more relevant today.” Since Davenport is a rare African American army captain of 1944, when much of the military was still segregated, the actor admits that “you carry all of that weight of trying to carry the integrity and heritage of your culture.”
The time period dictates that Davenport spends plenty of his investigation dealing with racism from white members of the military. But the character never loses his composure. “It takes a toll when you have to bite your tongue all the time,” says Underwood. That’s why the actor devised his character’s most moving moment, a “primal scream” that unleashes Davenport’s suppressed anxiety and anger, which was not found in the script. The actor explains that after “riding the wave of staying quiet and staying buttoned up the whole time without any release,” he suggested the emotional scream to Leon. The director liked the suggestion and it became one of the most talked about moments of the production.
Underwood was uniquely primed to play Davenport thanks to his military family. His father was in the military and the actor grew up on various bases. He describes witnessing the “certain military bearing” that his Dad carried, a “subtle and unique trait” that defines how those in the armed forces carry themselves. That intrinsic understanding of service members was paramount. While knowing how to stand and salute proved important, the bigger task was to “fill that man, that human being…inside that envelope that is the military,” according to Underwood. “That definitely came directly from my father.”
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