“A Soldier’s Play” by late Philadelphia playwright Charles Fuller will run at the Forrest Theater from Jan. 24 through Feb. 5. Set in the 1940s in an all Black unit of a Louisiana army camp, this 1982 Pulitzer Prize winner follows the murder of Sergeant Vernon Waters and the investigation into his death. Starring Norm Lewis and Eugene Lee, the show explores race relations in segregation-era America, and how forms of oppression manifest among Black men in the military.
Sheldon D. Brown, who plays Private C.J. Memphis, spoke to PGN about the show’s themes, the commentary it makes on racism today and how his experiences as a gay man inform his acting.
What are the show’s main themes?
I think the play’s main themes focus on race in America. This is a show about men who are learning a lot about each other and themselves. And how do we navigate through a very oppressive structure, not only within race in America, but also in the military. That’s a very, very oppressive structure and we’re talking World War II. They’re at the precipice of the beginning of it all, when things are starting to change. So trying to prove your mettle, trying to prove your worth in a world that makes it impossible. And on top of it, it’s a murder mystery too. It’s like an onion — I would say there’s many layers to it.
How does the story comment on modern-day racism?
We don’t live in a vacuum in which these things are just issues that are in the past. We’re constantly living in a world where we have to navigate around race, unfortunately. If you are a Black man in this country, your odds of ending up in prison are stronger. I think it’s one in four Black men [are in] prison and one in 17 white men. We live in structures where the education and graduation wealth gap between Black folks and white folks are very strong. And oftentimes that does lead folks into joining the military, when there’s no other viable option for you.
Also, we still have to prove ourselves in a world of having to work twice as hard to get half as far in a sense – having to live in a system where you see injustices. We were in D.C. during January 6, which was just a couple years ago, in which we’re seeing another vision of America. And so these men who went off to war, they were hoping that they would go to war and come back home and be respected and that they could really change the circumstances of what they were living through in their country. I think that that fight is still there; I think there are people who are hoping that not only people who are fighting and serving the country, but people who are fighting at home who are here on the frontlines trying to reach equality, trying to end the unjust justice system that we have that locks Black men up, that brutalizes Black men, that leads Black men from school to prison. These are issues that we’re still dealing with.
Another thing that’s really beautiful about the show is that the two central characters, a Black man and a white man who have differences — they don’t quite see eye to eye from the very beginning of the show. But being in war together, and knowing that you have to trust your life to another human regardless of what their race is and how you may feel about them, you start to see the relationship between them grow. And that’s what we actually need, that’s the necessity of having camaraderie and unity and citizenship in this country, is us coming from different walks of life – different times, different countries and different upbringings, and finding a way that we can bridge the gap together as one. We start to see characters deal with that because of the precipice of integration in the military, fighting alongside one another. So how do we navigate in a very oppressive world that has a deep history of division, how do we move past those barriers and be united together?
Does your sexual orientation inspire your work?
Absolutely. I think it’s really beautiful when you’re able to bring yourself into any piece that you do. And it doesn’t mean that every character that I do has to be gay. I think that there are a lot of things that I’ve learned in my own personal life, especially how to navigate in a world where many times when I was in the closet, I was performing and acting straight and hoping that people will believe my performance. I know what cost that has. My character has a line that says, ‘any man who ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lot of pain.’ And throughout my life, when I was younger, I wasn’t sure where I belonged. I was trying to perform and please other people, and that created a great deal of pain for myself.
I think the gift I’ve been given with my own experience is to be able to find the gentleness of a character, to not be constricted by the masculinity of a character, or the performance of masculinity in a character. But being able to just be in touch with feeling, with my emotions, to be sensitive; I think as men we’re told constantly growing up not to cry, that boys don’t cry, and to not talk and not be in tune with our feelings, not communicate, to fight all the time. Literally my job is to know emotions, to know feelings, to communicate, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to be open. I’m so grateful for it; it saved my life. It has been something that has allowed me to not fall under pressure because I’m unwilling to open myself up.
I come from a family of men who are very alpha-driven and strong minded, and that has given me voice and gave me the ability to stand up for myself and hold my ground, which I’m appreciative of. But having the permission to let go, to be your fullest self with no apologies, to be unapologetic of who you are, and to love who you are despite what the world may think of you, is the tough skin you need to be an actor.
Tell me about your character, Private C.J. Memphis.
I love my character. I find him to be a profound soul. He has a very deep insight and perspective about people and himself that at that time, him being who he is, I don’t think people really respect and value that. I think he has really strong emotional intelligence that doesn’t really get seen by the other characters in the play. But it’s a way for him to really see the spirit of folks, and that’s how he’s able to judge and assess them. That also gives him access to the blues. That music taps right into the soul; it takes the pain, the longing, the joy and fight and the grit and the dirt of our history, and this is a person that represents all of that — he’s able to communicate all of that soul.
He’s a gentle man; he can be a man of few words; he is a forgiving man. I think he’s a person that has really true honesty and genuine spirit, which at the time can be something that is unrecognizable, and something that maybe people might be threatened by or they don’t quite understand. But C.J. is very much a person that marches to the beat of his own drum. He doesn’t change who he is; he is beholden to no one in that regard.
How did you prepare for the role?
As we had been rehearsing, the character was growing and growing and transforming into something different. Just probably at the end of our tech week I got notes from the director that really started to make this character take shape. What’s really amazing is, throughout the process of us performing and touring, I’ve been playing with this character and expanding with this character and finding new layers; the work is not finished. I have had lots of practice as far as reading the play. I come from a military family, which is something I discovered late in life, so I’d been talking to them [about] why they joined the war; and doing some character research on and why someone like my character C.J. would join the war; and visiting the African American History Museum, and learning about the history of Black servicemen and just the time period of what was existing in America in the 40s. That’s given me all of this different context.
Then on top of that, it’s just been allowing myself to play and to make choices, new choices on stage. What’s been really amazing is that we have a very strong ensemble on stage, and so it gives me the permission to be able to play. Everyone moves around each other when we make choices. As we’ve gone to each city, each performance is just getting stronger and stronger, and deeper and deeper. So it’s just been a never-ending process. I think my process is something that’s always ongoing, layering, finding depth, finding truth.
How have audiences responded to the play so far?
Honestly, it’s been a really amazing experience to share it in different places and see people’s similar responses. I think a lot of folks come into the show expecting one thing and they leave being able to take something with them. I love when that happens, when folks can be really moved and have something on their mind for days and days after. I’ve actually had people reach out to me on social media and send messages about how much they’ve enjoyed the show and the performances and how lasting it has been for them.