From witnessing white actors in blackface to seeing actual Black actors star on Broadway, Eugene Lee has seen the theater world change since he began his own career in the early 1970s.
He got one of his first starring roles in the initial production of “A Soldier’s Play” in 1981 when he portrayed Corporal Bernard Cobb.
The play uses the murder mystery of a sergeant at an all-black Louisiana Army base to explore the complicated feelings of anger and resentment that some Black soldiers displayed toward one another.
Now — over 40 years later — Lee, 69, is back in the play as Sgt.Waters on a national tour. As he reflects back on his journey as an actor, Lee says he has a greater appreciation for the opportunity.
Stay informed with news and events that impact Charlotte’s Black communities.
“[The story] is from a time period that I’m familiar with. I’m old enough to be able to put my finger on the pulse of African-Americans during this time period,” he told QCity Metro. “That’s appealing to me to be able to communicate some history in a way.”
Starting out in the profession
Lee’s first attempt at acting came as a kid growing up in Fort Worth, T.X. when he performed in skits at his church. He once acted as a preacher in a Tom Thumb Wedding.
In 1967, as a freshman at a newly-integrated high school, Lee was recruited by the theater teacher to join her drama class.
She was doing a play called, “You Can’t Take It With You” and asked Lee if he could portray the character of Donald. Lee said he read the script and denied the role because he viewed Donald as a “lazy, shiftless N-word.”
His teacher wouldn’t accept the denial.
“You wanna see me put one of these white boys up there in blackface?” Lee recalled what his teacher said to him.
Lee said he eventually accepted the role and performed in other roles throughout his time in high school.
After high school, Lee was accepted into Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University). He majored in political science with aspirations of becoming a lawyer, but his love for theater led it to becoming his minor.
Lee and his roommate, who was a theater major, started a collegiate theater group called the Ebony Players.
The group did a performance of “A Raisin in the Sun” on campus and gained the attention of a surprise admirer.
“Somehow or another, Lyndon Baines Johnson got word of it,” Lee said. “And the next thing we knew, we were invited to his house to do the play.”
In 1972, the group did a performance of “A Raisin in the Sun” for President Johnson, just weeks before the president’s death.
Grinding for that breakout role
After graduating college in 1974, Lee started teaching at Fort High School in Fort Worth, T.X., but he spent the summers in Los Angeles, going after acting gigs in hopes of kickstarting his acting career.
“Towards the end of the summer, I hadn’t made roles, so I’d get in my little Cutlass Supreme and drive my butt back to Texas,” he said.
In order to maintain his acting resume, Lee auditioned for minor roles on television shows and movies being filmed in Texas.
“I worked in a lot of films. I worked in the first five episodes of ‘Dallas’ and the original series as an extra. I worked in the movie, ‘Semi-Tough,” he said. “I did a bunch of industrial films and management training films in Dallas.”
In 1978, he got his first big movie role in the film “Cotton Candy,” where he played the senior president.
“I resigned from my teaching position in Fort Worth,” he said. “After we finished shooting, I packed up everything I owned and I moved to Los Angeles.”
His first job in L.A, was on an episode of the famous Black sitcom, “Good Times.”
Joining the initial cast of ‘A Soldier’s Play’
In 1980, Lee joined the Negro Ensemble Company, a Black-owned and centric theatre production team. There, he co-starred with Samuel L. Jackson in a play called “Home.”
Douglas Turner Ward, a director in the company, pitched him the idea of a play he was writing while they were touring.
“I had begun touring with another play when he called me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of his play,” Lee said. “I said ‘yes’ and I got out of the play I was doing and moved back into New York to start rehearsal.”
Lee said none of the cast knew what roles they were playing until the first day of rehearsals when he learned that he would be portraying Corporal Bernard Cobb.
The production performed the play across the country for nearly two years. Popularity for the play led to its adaptation into a movie, titled “A Soldier’s Story” in 1984.
Lee said the movie enhances the story in a way, but the play provides a sense of intimacy to those present to watch.
“It’s like you’re in the room and you never leave the room,” he said. “You can actually work at solving the murder mystery yourself in a way.”
Returning in a new role
Lee said when the play was being brought to Broadway, he couldn’t pass up the chance to be a part of it. He was excited to take on this new role.
“It’s that much more exciting to me and challenging to me in a way to revisit this play from the Sergeant’s perspective,” he said.
“It’s really kind of special to me to have grown into this role in a way.”
Waters, who is written as the antagonist in the play, is viewed as a strict sergeant, often belittling other Black soldiers who don’t live up to his standards of how Black men should behave.
Many people have expressed to Lee how much they hate Waters, calling the character a “villain.” Lee said he initially disliked the character, but after portraying the role he believes Waters is a “conflicted man” and misunderstood.
He wants others to view the character as he does.
“My job is to, as best I can, provide an audience with some insight into why this man was the way he was and help them understand him,” he said.
Lee said the play offers a number of themes and characters the audience can relate to. Waters’ struggle of finding his place in society is something many Black people can relate to, Lee said.
“We all have some Waters in us,” he said.
“A Soldier’s Play” will be in Charlotte until Jan. 22. Tickets can be purchased via Blumenthal Performing Arts’ website.