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Telling the truth, onstage and off, so history doesn’t repeat itself

What ‘A Soldier’s Play’ can teach us about politics in America

Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn takes a photo after last year’s final Jan. 6 select committee hearing.
Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn takes a photo after last year’s final Jan. 6 select committee hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps last week to remember the events of Jan. 6, 2021, and honor those who defended them and democracy itself, there were glaring gaps in the heartfelt tableau.

That Friday morning, two years to the day after insurrectionists swarmed the U.S. Capitol with the intent of overturning the results of a fair election, many Republicans were too busy with a call sorting out the Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House drama to attend, though GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania was spotted among his Democratic colleagues.

It should have been a commemoration that transcended party and politics, a brief acknowledgment of the truth of what happened that terrifying day. Instead, memories of a mob breaking windows and pummeling police officers while calling for the heads of then-Vice President Mike Pence and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have, in some quarters, gone poof!

That’s the danger of “whitewashing” history, a term I use with intention. It’s a practice neither shocking nor original, but it blocks any progress toward Americans understanding one another and this country we all share.

Thankfully, culture provides plenty of opportunities to fill in the blanks — and to reflect.

A play I’ve seen twice in recent weeks is a prime example. It illuminates a time many seldom think about, a history others would like to forget despite its imprint on injustice that remains in the present day.

“A Soldier’s Play,” first produced for the stage in 1981, set largely in the barracks of an all-Black Army unit in Louisiana in 1944, is a drama, a mystery and a history lesson — one that’s more relevant and necessary than ever at a time when any mention of this country’s past that doesn’t come tied in a shiny bow has become one more battle in America’s culture wars.

While the experiences of the characters in this 2020 Tony award-winning revival, now in a tour stop in my home base of Charlotte, N.C., may seem far away, simmering conflicts in how Americans still treat one another are why audiences continue to learn something.

The men who perform Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work also see the parallels and are grateful for the insights audiences gain even as they are entertained. As part of my work with the city’s performing arts center and the national tour, I asked the actors who bring the play to thrilling life each time they hit the stage about the messages that stay with them.

Eugene Lee — actor, director, playwright and educator — has lived with “A Soldier’s Play” since its first Negro Ensemble Company staging and has played three different roles in productions. Currently, he is playing the spit-and-polish Sergeant Vernon C. Waters.

“These men were ready to go out and put their lives on the line and fight for democracy, with a hope that they would come back and democracy would live up to its promise,” Lee said, which was far from the reality for those who did return.

I thought of Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn and his defense of the Capitol two years ago, even while being showered with racial slurs, ignoring the hate while doing his duty. He has said it “broke” him, yet he continues to work in the same halls where rioters paraded with Confederate flags.

“While these days, people are trying to hide the facts about history,” Lee said, the play is “the truth, spoken with clarity. … When you give someone insight into a culture, into a people, into their beliefs and their feelings, and their strengths and their assets,” he said, “you provide that kind of understanding. That’s one way to assassinate hate, because I don’t think you can hate something that you understand.”

In “A Soldier’s Play,” Norm Lewis portrays Captain Richard Davenport, the lawyer who arrives to unravel the mystery at the play’s center. His character, an educated officer with stature and presence who takes whites and Blacks on the base by surprise, parallels Lewis’ own status as pioneer. He was the first African American actor to step into the title role on Broadway in “The Phantom of the Opera,” and his credits range from Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” to the works of Stephen Sondheim.

Until he did “Da 5 Bloods,” Lewis admitted, “I had no idea about the Black struggle that was going on in Vietnam,” the fact that African Americans served far above their percentage of the population, especially when it came to infantry troops.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute.’ In order to not repeat what we’ve been through, we need to know what the stories are. I feel like this play just really, really needs to be seen by so many people — Black, white, whatever. It’s part of our history.”

“There’s been a change in America,” Lee acknowledged. “We’ve had a Black president since this play was done. But there has also been backlash,” he said. “What I’ve learned is that change takes time; big boats turn slow, but they do turn.”

But forces fighting change persist, particularly when it comes to facing the reality that racism is complicated, as complicated as Lee’s “Soldier’s Play” character, an example of the destructive effect of hate turned inward.

Fuller’s ultimate achievement was showing all the men of “A Soldier’s Play” as complex, as flawed, as human.

Watching Officer Dunn proudly displaying the Presidential Citizens Medal — the nation’s second-highest civilian honor, awarded to individuals for their service to America — I realized he, unlike many before him, did get a “thank you,” one from the president of the United States.

As Eugene Lee reminded me, change, however slow, does happen. As long, I would add, as America remembers.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. She is host of the CQ Roll Call “Equal Time with Mary C. Curtis” podcast. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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