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Off Guard 

By Dalt Wonk A Soldier's Play

Directed by Wilbert Williams

Starring Anthony Bean, Harold Evans, Dewey Mormon, Nick Thompson

8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., March 7-8; 3 p.m. Sun., March 9

Anthony Bean Community Theater, 1333 S. Carrollton Ave., 862-7529; www.anthonybeantheater.com Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It's a first-class murder mystery set in a Louisiana army barracks during World War II. The undertone of racial tension runs deep, but the play is essentially about the solving of a crime, and like all good crime stories, it catches us off guard.

Fuller himself joined the army in 1959 and served in Japan and South Korea. Things had changed a good deal since World War II, but the playwright did experience barracks life, which must have helped him imagine the conditions of the unit his characters serve in.

Vernon Waters, a black sergeant, is gunned down one night while returning drunk to the barracks he commands. Capt. Richard Davenport, also a black man, arrives to investigate. African-American officers were almost unheard of at the time. Capt. Charles Taylor (Nick Thompson), the white officer who has been handling the investigation, is rather befuddled. He struggles to accept a black man of equal rank. 'All the Negroes we knew here were subordinates," he says. 'Being in charge just doesn't look right in a Negro."

Davenport (Anthony Bean) shows stoic patience with Taylor's well-meant though often derogatory candor. But it's the patience of a volcano. Davenport will not be intimidated. He demands cooperation. He was given the job of investigating the crime, and when the whites balk at this, Davenport explodes.

The simplest, easiest way of disposing of the case is to blame the murder on the Ku Klux Klan. The soldiers themselves say it must have been the Klan. 'Who else goes around killing Negroes in the South?" one asks in irritation when the black soldiers' trunks are searched for weapons.

But Davenport is not interested in easy answers. One of the privates wants to know if it is true that Sgt. Waters had his stripes on when his body was discovered. Davenport says yes and asks why that matters. The soldier continues that the Klan hates to see blacks in uniform and would have ripped his decorations off him.

To understand who killed Waters and why, Davenport must get a clear picture of the soldiers in the unit and of Waters himself. Many of the soldiers in the unit were baseball players in the Negro League and had high hopes of winning the camp baseball championship. The reward would be a chance to play the Yankees.

Among the most talented baseball players is C. J. Memphis (Dewey Mormon). Memphis is a good-looking country boy who also plays blues guitar. He seems to have been a favorite of Waters. The sergeant's sidekick, however, dispels that notion. He says the sergeant, in fact, disdained the young soldier " just as he disdained all southern blacks. He called them 'Guichies" " referring to a stereotype of low-class, bowing-and-scraping blacks. Waters apparently believed that Guichies propagated negative images that affected the way all blacks were seen, he says.

In a flashback to before his murder, Waters tells a story of his World War I days, when he was in France. Some white troops told French women that blacks had tails. They even got a black soldier into a ridiculous costume and had him perform " eating bananas and fooling around. Waters didn't like the act and his account is like a clarion call to alert us that he was willing to take matters into his own hands.

At the Anthony Bean Community Theater, we are accustomed to Bean directing and Wilbert Williams playing a major role. This time they reverse positions. Williams shows flair as a director, and Bean gives a strong performance as Davenport. Harold Evans, a star of the local theater scene, brings Sgt. Waters to life as a man working out his own civil rights agenda, albeit a twisted one.

The rest of the cast create individuals who at the same time give a sense of barracks camaraderie. Chad Talkington's set and lighting are excellent. A Soldier's Play is both enjoyable and stimulating. It touches on serious social questions while telling an extraordinary crime story.

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