Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with David Alan Grier about his work on A Soldier’s Play.
Ted Sod: Where were you born and trained as an actor? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you as an artist?
David Alan Grier: I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. I went to the Yale Drama School and graduated in 1981. My first acting teacher was a guy named Dr. Ron Washington from Michigan, and he actually came to see me when I did Porgy and Bess in New York City, and it was really great. We’ve been in contact intermittently throughout the years, but he was my first real acting teacher.
TS: Why did you choose to play the role of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters?
DAG: I’ve worked with Kenny Leon several times, and he called me up and there was dread. I thought, I’m not going to go to New York and do a play for no money. I have a young daughter, and in order for me to do a play, it has to be something I HAVE to do. It has to be an offer that I cannot say no to. And as soon as he said A Soldier’s Play on Broadway, I asked, “What role is it?” He said, “Sergeant Waters.” And I could not say no. Sergeant Waters is such a bastard, and the way he talks to his soldiers — I love it. This is a character that anyone would dream of playing.
There’s so much dichotomy – most of the play he’s so cocksure. “I know I’m right. I’ve seen more than you, I know more than you, I’m smarter than you,” and in the end, he knows nothing. Waters is resentful that these Black men under him are treated differently — because they are baseball players. Baseball at the time was at its height in this country, so you just know how special they were and how special they were treated. Waters seems determined to cut all of that away. He’s harder on those men who play – he thinks has to be.
TS: As I understand it, you went into the original production of A Soldier’s Play at the Negro Ensemble Company, is that correct?
DAG: Yes. The late, great Reg E. Cathey and I were college roommates. Reg E. went in to audition. He called me and said, “Hey listen man, I’m not right for this role, but they’re looking for someone to replace this character, CJ Memphis, and he plays guitar.” I played guitar since I was 12, and he said, “You could do this role.” I called my agent, I went in, I auditioned for Douglas Turner Ward, the director, and they cast me. They put me in immediately. That’s how I got to replace Larry Riley in the original production. When I came in, everybody was there — Sam Jackson was there, that’s where I met Denzel, Bret Jennings. A lot of the original cast was still intact.
You know, in 1983, it was very rare to have a play with all these different racial, cultural, and political points of view. That’s really what takes place in Charles Fuller’s play — all these different kinds of black and white people are discussing, pondering, and arguing about who is right and which belief system should be honored.
TS: Why do you think it is important for audiences to see the play now?
DAG: Well, first of all, it’s a brilliant play about Black men in the United States Army during World War II — most people, if they know A Soldier’s Play, know the movie version. They don’t know it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play first. Also, it has never been on Broadway. It’s a great play with exceptional roles for African American actors. That’s why audiences should see it.
TS: I want to ask about Sergeant Waters, because it’s such a complex psyche this man has. What kind of research do you have to do in order to play Sergeant Waters?
DAG: Sergeant Waters is a committed racist. He really is. There’s been some discussion that Black people can’t be racist because we don’t have the power to institute change on a wide level. People believe you have to have power to bring about racist activity. But anybody can be a racist. Sergeant Waters is single-handedly weeding out those weak and inefficient Black men that he thinks are holding the race back. He’s eliminating them. And he has no qualms about that. He explains his belief very plainly. I have encountered people like that in my life. But I am not like Sergeant Waters.
As an actor, there are two types of roles I usually play. There are roles that I know. I’ll read the script and I’ll go, I know this. This is a part of me. I can play this. The other type of role is a person you recognize, but you don’t share their beliefs, and it’s that kind of role that I have to do a lot more research for. I have to dig for Sergeant Waters because everything about him is foreign to my orientation.
I grew up around Black men who believed as Sergeant Waters does. Black men of a different generation. Most of my uncles fought in World War II. Going over to Europe, they experienced a world that they didn’t even know existed, meaning the absence of prejudice. They were treated as human beings. A lot of them came back to the USA hoping and expecting to be treated differently. And they weren’t. That created bitterness. You’re shown some daylight only to return and be shackled once again by society. So, I think that kind of experience fuels a lot of Sergeant Waters’s frustration, anger, and resentment.
TS: I’m curious about his last line: “They still hate you.” What do you think he wants?
DAG: He wants to be accepted, but he’s come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what he does, it doesn’t matter how good he is at what he does. At the end of the day, all of that is bullshit because he realizes there’s nothing he can do to not be hated by the whites. Hatred, especially racial hatred, is illogical. Race is a concept that is outdated, yet we are all societally tethered to it.
They had a hard time implementing the integration of Black troops in World War II. The Klan was in high gear all over the country. In the armed forces, they would give the Black soldiers the worst and most taxing shifts — cleaning out the latrines, loading ammunition on battleships and on planes. Many of those Black soldiers were killed because nobody else wanted to do those dangerous and backbreaking jobs. Yet these men were fighting for their equality and their dignity as men.
TS: What’s important to you when you’re collaborating on a role with a director?
DAG: Robert Altman told me that a great director has the ability to get an actor to do everything the director wants and yet the actor will think it was all his own idea. I have to trust my director, and the first thing I’ve said to quite a few people that have never directed before is, “Go ahead and direct me.” I have to be able to trust that if I’m going in a direction or making choices that aren’t working, the director will tell me, “That doesn’t work. Try this.” Or, “What you stopped doing was so powerful. Bring that back.” Someone who can push me in a direction that I can’t push myself. I like a director to point out things about the character I am playing that I can’t see.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to act in the theatre?
DAG: I would say, if you’re really passionate about acting, act. Anywhere and everywhere and as much and as often as you can. Because you need that stage time. In church, at school, community theatre, college. Take risks. Those roles that make me nervous and a little fearful and that I don’t know exactly how I can pull this off, I want to do those characters, because I’m challenging myself, I’m requiring myself to step up and throw caution to the wind.
TS: Is there a question you wish I had asked you?
DAG: How have I remained so beautiful? I’ve been growing this beard for the last few years, and I just shaved it off to get ready for this role. And everyone on Instagram said, “No! No! Don’t shave it off!” But it’s hair. It’ll grow back.