Play Explores History Through a Mystery
Actor Malik Childs is Headed Home
Next stop for A Soldier’s Play is Charlotte’s Knight Theater from Jan. 10 – 22
The cast of the national tour of A Soldier’s Play | CREDIT: Joan Marcus
Actor Malik Childs said leaving Washington, D.C., where he’s been performing at the majestic Kennedy Center in the first stop on the national tour of A Soldier’s Play, won’t be all that hard. The company’s next stop: Charlotte.
Childs may be on his first national Broadway tour, but he’s surrounded by a cohort of veterans of stage and screen. The Tony Award-winning whodunit takes place on a military base in the segregated South. Don’t miss the riveting revival at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Knight Theater Jan. 10 – 22. Tickets are on sale now.
“Coming to Charlotte will be like coming home,” said the 2019 University of North Carolina School of the Arts alum, with his eyes closed and hands in prayer position. (UNCSA, in Winston-Salem, was the training ground for a number of notable actors, including Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Parnell of SNL fame, Jada Pinkett Smith, Danny McBride and more.)
While his education prepared Childs for a national Broadway tour, “there are always some things you have to learn by getting thrown into the fire,” he said. “But as far as technique and being able to produce a performance every night, [school] absolutely prepared me for that.”
A whodunit and a history lesson
A Soldier’s Play, written by Playwright Charles Fuller and inspired by Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd. It takes place in 1944 at Fort Neal, a Louisiana Army base, at a time when the South and the military were segregated.
When Sergeant Vernon Waters (the legendary Eugene Lee) is murdered, another Black officer, Captain Richard Davenport (Broadway veteran Norm Lewis) is sent to investigate.
Was the killer a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Or perhaps a racist white soldier? There were plenty of them. It’s both whodunit and history lesson.
Lewis – a Broadway A-lister – made his Broadway debut in 1992 in The Who’s Tommy and has since starred in Miss Saigon, Chicago, Side Show, Sweeney Todd and as Javert in Les Misérables several times. He originated the role of King Triton in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid and was the first Black actor to perform the title role in The Phantom of the Opera.
The audience comes to know Waters – killed in the opening scene – through vivid flashbacks. He was disdainful and abusive, but there may have been a reason behind his brutality. He wanted his men to succeed in a military – and a country – dominated by white men. Military service was one of the only ways Southern Blacks could escape oppression.
Getting into character
Childs plays Private Tony Smalls, a character stageagent.com describes as “timid, concerned, nervous, drunk.” Childs agrees with most of that description but takes issue with the word “drunk.”
“Tony may drink a little bit,” said the Providence, Rhode Island resident. “But his story is part of the grander story that I can’t give away. He may or may not be telling the truth about certain things when it comes to drinking.”
“Smalls is definitely timid, but there’s another side to him. He can also be the life of the party. And importantly, he has nothing outside these barracks, outside the Army. There’s no home or family for him to go back to. This is his life.”
Director Kenny Leon (a Tony winner for Best Direction of Play for A Raisin the Sun) has helped Childs shape the character.
“A note he gave us all is: Let it happen; don’t make it happen,” Childs said. “It can be tempting to try to manufacture something, to stir it up. But it’s much better to just drop your shoulders and let it happen.”
(From L) Sheldon D Brown, Branden Davon Lindsay and Will Adams | CREDIT: Joan Marcus
‘Empathy for the soldiers’
Childs prepared for the role the way all good students do – by doing his homework.
“I wanted to be off-book by the first week because we only had two weeks of rehearsals,” he said. (“Off book” means not needing to refer to the script.)
“I wanted to be as prepared as I could be. I did research, dramaturgy (the study of plays, operas and musicals) work – looking at the time period when the play takes place and what those men were fighting for. I thought about what enlisting today would look like versus what it looked like back in ’42.”
“You have to open up another part of yourself when it comes to empathy,” he added. “I have real empathy for these soldiers. These men were fighting for a country that couldn’t care less about them.”
Childs, who was at his D.C. hotel when we spoke over Zoom, was keenly aware of the Kennedy Center’s proximity (less than 2 miles) to Arlington National Cemetery.
“It’s been special to know that every night, there’s somebody in the audience who served in the military,” he said. “That’ll probably be the case every night. I hope they feel seen.”
Eugene Lee as Sergeant Vernon C. Waters | CREDIT: Joan Marcus
Band of brothers
The all-male cast has already become a brotherhood that feels a little like a traveling AAU team, Childs said. They plan to see the Hornets play the Celtics while they’re in Charlotte. “There are a few clubs we want to hit up to explore the nightlife,” Childs said. “And we plan to eat some barbecue.”
Childs is enjoying learning all he can about his craft from the acting veterans surrounding him. He described Norm Lewis as “great … a teddy bear of a person.”
“Being with Eugene Lee – who was also in the original  cast – has been amazing,” he added. “He’s come full circle. He originated the role of Corporal Cobb in the original production and is now coming back and playing Sergeant Waters. To be in the same room with an actor who’s been at it for 50-plus years – there’s just so much knowledge to gain from being around him.”
The best advice Lee has offered Childs? “He told me: It’s not about you; it’s about the story,” he said. “That’s great advice for an ensemble piece like this. You’ve got to release your ego at the door.”
A story that can’t be told too many times
Joining Lee in that 1981 cast were a couple of guys who may have heard of. Both Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson were in the first A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama. The 2020 Broadway revival won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. (David Alan Grier also won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play, and Blair Underwood was nominated for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.)
The oft-told story was also made into a 1984 film, A Soldier’s Story, directed by Norman Jewison, known for directing the Oscar-nominated In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof and Moonstruck.
Childs said audiences don’t need to do or read anything to prepare to see the show. It’s best to come in not knowing too much so you can be surprised as the murder investigation unfolds.
“Just show up as you are,” he said. “Come open and ready to receive.”
Eugene Lee (center) and the cast of the national tour of A Soldier’s Play CREDIT: Joan Marcus
See the men in uniform.
A Soldier’s Play is at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Knight Theater from Jan. 10 – 22. Learn more and buy tickets (starting at $25) at blumenthalarts.org. Follow Malik Childs on Instagram at @malikechilds.
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