Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, ''A Soldier's Play'' is superficially a military murder mystery and secondly a play about racism. But on its deepest level, the play (the film version, ''A Soldier's Story,'' opens soon) is a provocative look at how men, black and white, seek their identity through the wearing of a common uniform. From the play's opening line, ''They still hate you,'' hollered by a black sargeant seconds before he is gunned down, the three strands of the work begin to resonate simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the play's structure - a military investigation using a static question- and-answer format punctuated by brief flashbacks - is saddled with an overly staid production by the Negro Ensemble Company. Consequently the play's dramatic potential is dulled.
Set in a Louisiana Army barracks during World War II, the play works backward to unravel the character of the murdered Sergeant Waters. What facilely plays as a whodunit with social overtones - initially the Ku Klux Klan and two white privates are suspected - quickly turns into a story of prejudice turned inward. The black sergeant, an officer whose education stopped at fifth grade, is a man filled with self-loathing flimsily covered by a military uniform. ''We've got to stop thinking like niggers,'' he says during one flashback. What remains to be discovered in the investigation led by black Capt. Richard Davenport, a device that sets up further racial overtones, is even more damaging: Waters has been conducting a one-man crusade to jail those blacks he says ''make people think the whole race is unfit.''
The play's disturbing conclusion, however, is little enhanced by its current production under the direction of Douglas Turner Ward, artistic head of the Negro Ensemble Company. Despite a relatively solid cast, the investigatory suspense never really builds and the antagonism between the black and white officers, crucial to the play's success, seldom crackles. Ward is more successful with his portrayal of Sargeant Waters as a rumbling bear of a man, both fearsome and loathsome to his troop, but occasionally unintelligible to the audience.
The production, which previously ran at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival and the Edinburgh Festival, plays at the Colonial Theatre through Sept. 23.