David Alan Grier Dishes on His Drama Desk Nod for A Soldier’s Play
By: Iris Wiener
May 7, 2020: David Alan Grier prides himself on variety; he has left no genre or medium untouched, ranging from theater (both plays and musicals) to television and film (comedy, drama, and everything in between), to stand-up comedy and improv. His long career has even afforded him three opportunities to work on A Soldier’s Play, which is currently nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Best Revival of a Play. After having been featured in a 1981 stage production of Charles Fuller’s drama (which also starred the then-unknown Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington), he went on to join the cast of Norman Jewison’s 1984 film adaptation. On both occasions Grier embodied different roles; when it opened on Broadway for the first time in 2019, he played a third. Now a first-time Drama Desk nominee for his performance as Vernon C. Waters, a harsh, biting African American sergeant who is found murdered at a Louisiana army base in 1944, Grier spoke with Theaterlife about his experience with the play, celebrating his nomination in the same year that In Living Color celebrates its 30-year anniversary, and how he is looking to Katy Perry for inspiration in making his next theatrical entrance.
Theaterlife: Does being a first-time Drama Desk nominee make getting through the pandemic slightly easier?
David Alan Grier: I don’t get any perks right now, nor do I have a special 1-800-Toilet-Paper line (laughs), but a Drama Desk nomination is a unique award because the Drama Desk honors both Broadway and Off-Broadway. To whittle nominations down to just a few and then giving an award [with that pool], that’s a lot of work. I like that it honors all platforms.
TL: You have been nominated for Tony Awards (The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, Race, and The First), and now the Drama Desk Award for A Soldier’s Play; each of the roles in these plays have differed from one another vastly. You certainly are not pigeonholed! What is it that nominators see in your performance choices that encourages them to remember you?
DAG: I hope that I am connecting with people in the audience. I hope that I am speaking through the characters and bringing them life. As a fan and as a theatergoer, I love when I walk into a theater, I see an actor I think I know, and I say, “Oh, I know that guy! He’s a great guy.” Then they transport you; they take off and they show you a different face and you are riding with it. What’s more exciting than that? The best compliment I got was from someone on Twitter who said, “I loved you so much and I hated to hate you so much in this play.” That means that I did my job. I took her to another place and she bought in for those brief moments.
TL: What did you bring to the play because you had worked on it twice before?
DAG: I don’t know. When we did our first table read for the most recent A Soldier’s Play, the young guys were like, “Tell us if we’re doing it wrong.” I never wanted to be the harbinger or the gatekeeper of A Soldier’s Play because I never experienced the play in the way that I did this time. I tried to get in the trenches shoulder to shoulder with these guys. When I first did A Soldier’s Play I came in and replaced Larry Riley [who played C.J.]. Like any actor, I was concentrating on those scenes. I didn’t get the option of rehearsing with the company from the very first day. But even so, when people ask Sam Jackson how that production started, he says, “Mothaf–ka, I don’t know! They turned the lights out and we started talking.” Come on! That was forty years ago! I didn’t really spend a lot of time watching Adolph [Caesar] in his character development of Sergeant Waters. When we did the movie I played Corporal Cobb, and again, just experienced my scenes through my character. It was with this production that I was Waters from day one and explored, developed and analyzed him from top to bottom.
TL: How did your perception of the play change since you first encountered it?
DAG: When I first did the play I was 24, and Adolph was really “old”- he was like 50. Now I’m his contemporary. The life that you know at 50 or 60 as opposed to 24- those are two different things. Now I think I understand this man and the world in which he grew up. He has come to certain conclusions. The really unique thing about A Soldier’s Play is that a lot of those characters think they know how to survive in a time in which racism, segregation and subjugation were rampant. As an African American man Waters spent a lot of time feeling, “I know the world. I know how white people have constructed the game, and I have a way to win. My way is right. Yours is wrong.” [The characters] Davenport and Taylor think the same thing, “No, you’re all wrong. You’ve got to do it my way.” That’s what sets up the conflict, but I understand this guy. I knew black men, to a greater or lesser extent, who were like Waters. When I talked to the cast, the one thing I said was, “The great thing about this play is that when we start performing it you’re going to feel the audience take sides.” Waters starts with the most vehement statements. If you put his words in a white man or woman’s mouth, you’d think they were klansmen. But there were older balck members of the audience who would say, “He’s not totally crazy. We agree with certain aspects of what he is stating.” That’s the beauty of it. When audiences give you that you know that they’re riding with you. I like that there’s not one point of view. I couldn’t have played Waters at 24.
TL: How did audiences in 2019 differ from those in 1982? Did they tend to be more one-sided?
DAG: I remember the night before I went in to audition for [director] Douglas Turner Ward. They gave me a ticket and said, “Go see the play.” It was at Theater Four, a tiny theater. The set was very simple. The unique and amazing thing about it was back in the early ‘80s, usually a person of color was the spokesperson for that entire race. There were one or two black characters and they embodied the whole race. If one woman had a monologue they spoke for all femininity. In this show these black men were arguing amongst themselves in an iterracial conflict because there are all different stratas of the political and cultural landscape. Some audiences hated Waters, some people liked Waters. It was a real luxury to hear different voices with all these points of view. That’s the part of the experience that I really recall reveling in- a whole stage of voices arguing back and forth.
TL: What surprised you the most about the physicality of the role of Waters?
DAG: It was subjective memory. I remembered Adolph on the floor and he had a little fight scene, so last year I thought, “I could do this.” Then I realized the memory was like a bad relationship! (Laughs.) It’s like when you run into an ex at the mall and you’re like, “She’s really cute. It wasn’t that bad back then.” You guys hook up and you’re like, “Oh my god. This person is a lunatic!”
I had to construct a performance that I could actually do eight times a week. Now my body feels great, but every morning during the show’s run I felt like I had been beaten to a pulp the night before. It didn’t seem like it was a big deal when we started working on those fight scenes. Kenny would be there going, “No, I want this to look real. I don’t want this to look like stage fighting.” When Byrd would kick me in the mouth and the audience gasped, you could see them wince. There were times when I would come home, and be in the shower inspecting my body, and there would be a big lump, a bruise, a little knick or scratch or cut, and I’d have to go back through the performance and really think about how I got it. It was kind of like going through a drunken night; the day after you’re like, “I lost my shoe. Where was I?”
TL: Do you have a preference when it comes to the genres in which you work?
DAG: What I revel in is the variety. I cannot imagine working in one office for one company for 25 years. The longest play I ever did was Porgy and Bess, which was about eleven months. An actor once said to me, “I don’t get it. Why would anyone ever want to do a play?” He was an actor who had only done television and film. I was at a loss for words. This is what I trained to do and I really love theater. I love the entire process, both the rehearsal process and the process of going to the theater. There’s always a new audience and a new performance.
TL: You have quite a few projects under your belt that continue to have devoted fans, but none more so than In Living Color. As it is now celebrating its 30th anniversary, what is the craziest question that you are asked about it?
DAG: Nothing crazy. The number one question for In Living Color is, “Will there be a reunion?” No. Probably not. It’s like an old band. We did try it once. I had flown back to do this big reunion. By the time I had gotten off the plane the whole thing had fallen apart. Keenen [Ivory Wayans] just went, “I guess it was lightning in a bottle.” It was disappointing. I didn’t anticipate everyone still talking about it all of these years later. I thought I had about 18 months with it and that would be it. When it was over I was headlining clubs and theaters, and then when that subsided I thought I would just go back to being an actor. Who could foresee Youtube, the internet, social media… When I did a production of The Wiz at La Jolla Playhouse in 1995, I remember all of the younger guys had their laptops and they had all saved their favorite episodes and sketches from In Living Color and they would be like, “Dave, do you remember this?” Who could foresee that?
TL: How would you most like to see yourself return to the stage?
DAG: I would like to make an entrance in my next play or musical similar to the way that Katy Perry did it when she performed at the Super Bowl: on a giant gold tiger (laughs). A Soldier’s Play was the perfect way for me to come back. It was a limited run, it was the perfect time of year, and it was a role I couldn’t say no to. It would be great to do a new musical because creating a role is a different process; there is no framework, there is no pathway, it is yours from day one. That would be really fun to do. And my next role should have no fight scenes! (Laughs)
TL: Aside from spending time with your dog, Mr. Pickles, how have you been keeping yourself busy throughout the pandemic?
DAG: I fixed the garden hose. My 12 year-old daughter is with me, she keeps me tip-top conscious. I have cleaned out drawers, rearranged books, a lot of cooking and baking. In my weekly runs to the supermarket I spend a lot of money on flour, trying not to think about the business. I told my daughter that I have been nominated for the Drama Desk Award and asked her to come to the awards with me. I told her we can dress up from the waist up. I have half a tux. If everything were pre-pandemic, it would have been a fun excuse to come back to New York.
TL: You have also been having a lot of fun on social media joking around with your followers.
DAG: On Instagram I posted this horrible oil painting, a still-life of flowers. I captioned it, “This is a very amazing painting by a very talented artist.” Everyone thinks my 12 year-old daughter made it. In fact, it’s my painting. It looks like a 5 year-old did it, yet I was in high school when I did it. It is embarrassment upon embarrassment so I haven’t told anyone the truth. If I told them online, they would go, “David is so funny. Clearly a child did this.” It is hideous.
Photos: Joan Marcus “A Soldier’s Play”
Photo: David Alan Grier, “Sorry, David. The cat is out of the bag.”