By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — Charles Fuller, one of America’s greatest playwrights and a Pulitzer Prize winner, passed Oct. 3 at 83. He was a Philadelphia native and army veteran whose plays sought to portray Black Americans authentically as multidimensional, complex characters rather than restrict them to stereotypical roles and in cliched stories.
His works often highlighted uncomfortable truths about racism in the US and were written with mainly Black audiences in mind. For “A Soldier’s Play,” which highlights tensions between Black servicemen on a segregated army base, Fuller was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in drama and, nearly 40 years later, a Tony award.
“I think people will do “A Solider’s Play” forever,” he told American Theatre magazine in 2020. “There are very few plays with Black men, and if there are, the Black men are always in a weak position … I did not want to do that. I wanted to do us as what we are.”
He wrote plays for Black audiences.
Fuller grew up in the James Weldon Johnson Homes, a housing project in north Philadelphia and a location that influenced many of the works he’d grow up to create. Along with his friend and neighbor, the late poet and playwright Larry Neal, he delved into books by authors like Ralph Ellison as a child and set his sights on writing.
In an interview with fellow Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, Fuller said his first steps toward playwriting were skits created for residents of a low-income community in which he was then working as a housing inspector. Fuller wrote sketches reminding people to lock their doors and instructing them how to protect their trash cans, he told Nottage.
An audience member at one of these informational performances recommended that Fuller enter a play contest at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey — within a week, he’d written his very first work, “The Perfect Party,” which won the contest and was produced at the theater. The play, about interracial couples involved in the civil rights movement, transferred off-Broadway in 1969.
Fuller laughed at its “terrible reviews” in his conversation with Nottage. But the production was nonetheless what “springboarded” him to wider recognition in New York theater circles.
His 1974 play, “The Deepest Part of Sleep,” about an incestuous family, was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), a New York-based theater company founded in 1967 by Black artists, producing works for Black audiences. And Fuller would go on to work with the company for years. “We thought we were creating history,” he said of his NEC colleagues. “Frankly, we were.”
The group also produced some of Fuller’s subsequent works, “The Brownsville Raid” in 1976 and the Obie-winning “Zooman and the Sign” in 1980, with American history and race a throughline in both. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the NEC produced what it calls “its most successful production,” and the play for which Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize the following year, “A Soldier’s Play.”
Fuller’s own experience in the military — he served in the US Army from 1959 to 1962 — had inspired him to write a drama set within Black military ranks. “A Soldier’s Play” takes place on a segregated Army base in the 1940s, when a Black sergeant is murdered. Its subject matter is thorny and contentious — for one, its Black characters are often at odds, and internalized racism is one of its key themes — and its initial run courted both acclaim and controversy.
“A Soldier’s Play” was adapted for the screen in 1984, its title changed to “A Soldier’s Story,” and was nominated for three Oscars.
It would take nearly 40 years from its off-Broadway debut for “A Soldier’s Story” to appear on Broadway. There, audiences and critics alike welcomed it; “A Soldier’s Play” won the 2020 Tony Award for best revival of a play and scored nominations for its stars Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier, with the latter — who also appeared in both a previous stage version and the 1984 film — winning the Best Supporting Actor award.
Fuller wrote a few more works, including short stories and screenplays. His most recent, the 2013 play “One Night …” was once again set among the armed forces, and addressed sexual assault in the US military. But he will always be best known for “A Soldier’s Play,” though in 2020 he said he doesn’t dwell on its legacy. Asked about one of the play’s most famous lines — “You’ll have to get used to Black people being in charge” — Fuller answered plainly: “Well, it is as clear as it can be.”