(NEWS4USONLINE) – Actor and singer Norm Lewis has a history of firsts. Lewis was the first Black actor to star as the Phantom on Broadway in the long-running musical “Phantom of the Opera,” dipping into that role in 2014. As groundbreaking as that moment in stage history was, Lewis was not thinking about that at the time he auditioned for the role.
“I was just another brother just trying to get a job,” Lewis said in a telephone interview with Dennis J. Freeman. “That’s all that was. Basically, I went to an audition. For years, I had been coveting the role because I said I loved the show, and I saw it back in 1994 in Toronto.
“It took 20 years, but basically, I kept being interviewed or people would ask me personally. They would say, ‘What is your dream role? I would say the Phantom. I want to play the Phantom.’ I put it out there. Finally, the opportunity came up, and I went and auditioned. I was luckily chosen.”
Although he humbly downplays his historic breakthrough, there’s nothing about Lewis that says ordinary or pedestrian. His work on stage and film supports this fact. He’s been nominated for an Emmy. He’s also been tagged as a nominee for a Tony and SAG Awards as well.
Since playing the Phantom, Lewis has tapped into the consciousness of live theatre with signature roles in “Miss Saigon,” “Chicago,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” and “Chicken and Biscuits.” His film and TV credits include “Da 5 Bloods,” Women of the Movement,” “Just Mercy,” and “Sex and the City 2.”
Now Lewis is playing a more poignant role on the stage. That is playing the character of Capt. Richard Davenport in “A Soldier’s Play,” a tense, white knuckle ride into race, self-hated, and colorism set amid a military backdrop. “A Soldier’s Play,” was brought to life by the late playwright Charles Fuller in 1982.
“It’s one of those things where it seems like it’s dated. It seems like it could be a dated piece, but it’s not,” Lewis said. “It resonates even until this day. I will say I think that Charles Fuller was ahead of his time.”
Forty years after it was first brought to the theater, “A Soldier’s Play,” is still going strong. “A Soldier’s Play,” was nominated for seven Tony Awards, eventually walking away with two honors. Playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through June 25, “A Soldier’s Play,” gives you everything and more in a theatrical production. Well, let’s say all that you can handle.
A high-ranking officer is murdered just outside an all-Black military unit somewhere in Louisiana in 1944. Capt. Davenport’s job is to look into and investigate the killing of Vernon Waters, a Black sergeant in the U.S. Army.
As to what inspired him to want to play the role of Davenport, Lewis said the script and the 1984 movie “A Soldier’s Story,” which is based on “A Soldier’s Play,” led him down the pathway to be part of the national tour production.
“The script itself is beautifully crafted,” Lewis said. “I saw the movie [A Soldier’s Story] back in the mid-80s…it left an indelible mark on me in the sense of history. I didn’t know about that, so learning more about our culture was really amazing. So, when the opportunity came around [with] Kenny Leon at the helm, Roundabout [Theatre] being a great theatre company, and the fact that they wanted me to play this part, I was over the moon.”
That may be the way Lewis felt when he first saw “A Soldier’s Story.” With Howard Rollins Jr. dominating the scene as Capt. Davenport, Adolph Caesar as Sgt. Waters, and Denzel Washington playing Pvt. First Class Melvin Peterson, “A Soldier’s Story,” left a wonderful impression of A-list acting for Lewis.
“C’mon. Please. Those are the OGs. That is what made that movie resonate so much for me,” Lewis stated. “Howard Rollins, for me, was the Denzel before Denzel. He was this beautiful Black, dark-skinned man that looked like us. There was no if he was something else or not. He is Black. And having such an elegant role that just resonated with so many people. Being a captain in an Army base, being a person that everyone looked up to, and just the way he portrayed that. The way that Denzel did what he did in the movie. David Alan Grier, Adolph Caesar…that cast was phenomenal.”
This version of “A Soldier’s Play,” has a pretty good assemblage around Lewis. Eugene Lee, who takes on the role of Sgt. Waters, does his character so well that Caesar would be proud. Will Adams (Cpl. Bernard Cobb), Tarik Lowe (Pvt. First Class Melvin Peterson), Sheldon D. Brown (Pvt. C.J. Memphis), and Matthew Goodrich (Capt. Wilcox) are all very talented thespians.
But the star of “A Soldier’s Play” is clearly Lewis. Much like Rollins in the film version, Lewis is a commanding presence on the stage. He has no time for foolishness from white officers or Black subordinates. His time is short.
Capt. Davenport’s bottom line is to get to the truth behind the murder of Sgt. Waters, even if it makes those around him uncomfortable. What Lewis is able to bring to the stage in “A Soldier’s Play” is an indirect reflection on what he absorbed in watching “A Soldier’s Story.”
“To see a movie about something that looks like me, and to know, even though it’s fictionalized, but it’s based on true stories, if you will, it definitely left a mark on me,” Lewis said.
“A Soldier’s Play” has wielded a mark on a lot of people. With a four-decade run thus far, “A Soldier’s Play” has been able to connect with audiences because it hits the hammer on the head in addressing certain cultural and societal issues at the same time.
“It resonated back then. It was a show that was written in the 80s about the 40s, but it is still very poignant right now in 2023,” said Lewis. “Without giving away the plot, there have been a couple of incidences that have happened earlier this year that basically is that story. I don’t want to tell you what that is because I want people to come and see it if they’ve never seen it. This show talks about racism. It talks about systematic racism. It talks about self-hatred within our own culture. But [the] bottom line, it’s a murder mystery, which should keep people intrigued because people are like, ‘Did he do it? Did he do it?’ That kind of thing.”
Lead/Feature Photo: Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of “A Soldier’s Play” playing at Center Theatre Group / Ahmanson Theatre May 23 through June 25, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus
Dennis has covered and written about politics, crime, social justice, sports, and entertainment. Dennis currently covers the NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA, and Olympic sports. Dennis is the editor of News4usonline.com and serves as the publisher of the Compton Bulletin newspaper. He earned a journalism degree from Howard University.