In Friday’s 7 section I talk with Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of “A Soldier’s Play,” which opens today at Fresno State’s John Wright Theatre. Here’s the complete interview:
Question: Why pick “A Soldier’s Play”?
Answer: There were many reasons, but these kinds of selections are sometimes based on the specific pool of actors I may have as majors or general students with certain interests.
A couple of years ago, we had enough African American males to support such a production. I proposed it then. It took a year or two for the department to go along with the proposal.
What’s it about?
A black captain ordered by Washington to investigate the murder of a black sergeant. Obviously he is met with derision and resistance by his white colleagues. Black soldiers are in awe of seeing an actual black officer, but are kind of reluctant to cooperate with the investigation.
Tell us a little about the play’s background.
Written in the early 80′s, the play is based on actual events of a murder of a black sergeant in charge of a group of soldiers who also serve as baseball team playing other divisions to boost morale. The sergeant is murdered casting doubt on the military’s inability to protect personnel against redneck attacks and harassment.
At the time the author, Charles Fuller garnered the Pulitzer for drama, it was only the second or third black play to earn that award.
What’s your personal connection to the play?
I was cast in this play years ago. My mentor, Mike Gates, a professor of theatre at Sac State asked me to consider the role as the investigator as a guest actor. I was most interested in the role of the abrasive sergeant, but he had other ideas. Although it wasn’t a part of his decision, my mother also called him and told him that she didn’t like my playing the guy who was so cruel and gets murdered so brutally on stage.
One of your actors also has a connection that past production, right?
The role of corporal Ellis, was done by a student actor named Tony Vernon in the Sac State production. Purely by chance his son took a Black Theater class from me last year. I recognized the name, Anthony Vernon, on my roster and asked him if he was related to this guy. He told me Tony was his dad. I thought this was a wild coincidence and told a few colleagues about it. Our business manager suggested I cast him in the same role his dad played years ago in Sacramento. It’s working out pretty well.
“A Soldier’s Play” is a murder mystery and a military play. How does the issue of race fit in?
As a side note, Spike Lee confronted Clint Eastwood about the lack of Black soldier’s in Flags of our Fathers at its screening at the Cann Film Festival. Lee was obviously incensed by the Hollywood’s continued spate of WWII films with blacks conspicuously absent from these stories. This was the impetus for Lee’s film Miracle at St, Anna, which deals with the role of African Americans fighting in Italy. Because of this film and American’s current wars in the middle east, which casts more attention to the military, I thought it was a good time to do this play here.
As director, what kind of exercises and training did you use to prepare your cast?
I managed to dig up a couple of actual sergeants to take the actors though a barrage of boot camp training exercises during each rehearsal. This was designed mainly to perfect their military decorum and attention to its details. As a secondary benefit, this process also helped to solidify their group cohesiveness and discipline. Military people seeing the play will not be disappointed at their military bearing and crispness.
In mounting a nearly 30-year-old play, did you have to do any updating?
Not at all. My major problem in doing African American period plays, is keeping the actors away from modern physical and idiomatic expressions. Historic plays that deal with American’s ambivalence of African Americans and people of color is always a good learning experience for local actors.
Did you find that your own response to the play changed from when you acted in it years ago to directing it today?
LOL, this production has kept me so busy and overwhelmed that I haven’t been able to reflect on this. There are flashbacks while the actors run through the play. But generally, it’s radically different from our production.
Anything else you’d like to say about the production?
The department has agreed to offer discounts for military personnel, which is a nice touch. I’m not sure how local audiences will react to this story. There seems to be some degree of social, political love/hate for war and what it does to people on and off the battle field, so we’ll see.