Most mainstream news outlets who chose to publish an obituary of Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, focused on his plays with no mention of his novella “Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York.” This book was published in 2010, his first venture in writing a children’s book and fulfilling a long ago promise he made to his two sons.
But it was “A Soldier’s Play,” among his dozen or so plays, that brought him the attention that came a generation after struggling to find a footing on Broadway. In fact, at the very beginning of his career, his first play received such negative reviews that it almost discouraged him from attempting any more. As you can see he endured and succeeded famously.
Born Charles H. Fuller Jr. on March 5, 1939, in Philadelphia, he was the son of a father who was a printer and a mother a homemaker. He continued his education at Roman Catholic High School, and attended his first play at the Walnut Street Theater, a Yiddish production. While he didn’t understand the play or the language, it sparked his interest in the theater.
Before joining the Army, he studied at Villanova University for two years. After four years in the military, including stints in Japan and South Korea, he returned to his hometown and took night classes at LaSalle College (now University), while working as housing inspector for the city. It was in 1968, as the Black Arts Movement flourished, that he and some friends founded the Afro-American Arts Theater in Philadelphia. They were faced with the dilemma of having no resident playwright when Fuller volunteered to fill the role. “The Village: A Party” was his initial step into the field but it was disappointing and at least one review found him lacking any real talent as a playwright.
Despite the rejection, he was undaunted and by the 1970s he settled in New York, and the famed Negro Ensemble Company accepted and four year later staged his drama “In the Deepest Part of Sleep” and in 1976 opened its 10th anniversary season with his play “The Brownsville Raid,” which was based on an incident in which Black soldiers were unfairly accused and convicted of a shooting in the Texas city. It was a story of racial injustice that won Fuller great admiration and reviews, though it reached beyond just dealing with racial injustice.
“Zooman and the Sign” (1982) which preceded his widely acclaimed “A Soldier’s Play,” was another of his plays staged Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company, and delved once more into the complexity of Black and white characters. The filmed version, renamed “A Soldier’s Story,” was directed by Norman Jewison, featuring Denzel Washington, who had starred in the theater version, and David Alan Grier, and a deeply moving performance by Adolph Caesar. It received three Oscar Nominations in 1984, including one for the screenplay done by Fuller.
It finally made it to Broadway in 2020 by the Roundabout Theater with a cast that included Grier and Blair Underwood. And Grier won a Tony for best actor in a featured role in a play. The play was classified as a “classic” according to Tony rules and thereby eligible for awards in the revival category though it had never been on Broadway.
In an interview Fuller explained his approach to playwriting, noting, “In the 1960s and early ’70s, Black plays were directed at whites. They were primarily confrontational pieces, whose major concern was to address racism and white-Black relationships in the country. Now we are more concerned with examining ourselves, with looking at our own situations—historically in many instances. We are seeing characters who are more complex, one who has bad qualities as well as good ones.” Caesar’s role in “A Soldier’s Story,” is a good example of this complexity where a Black character is, in effect, the problem.
In the 1980s, Fuller moved to Toronto, no longer excited about living in New York City and he was there when he died on Oct. 3. He was 83.
Fuller, given the extensive research he did on New York’s history during the Civil War era, could be defined as a historian. His novella “Snatch,” though a work of fiction, is loaded with tons of factual individuals and incidents. He had promised the book to Charles III and David Ira Fuller 50 years prior, but, as he explained in the book’s afterword, “but my life as a playwright was moving forward, I did not find the time or make time to keep the promise.” But, at last, he finished it, and it’s a book that reads so cinematically that a film version of it could be easily done.
On several occasions, Fuller remarked on his early years coming of age in Philadelphia, and noted that “I grew up in a project in a neighborhood where people shot each other, where gangs fought each other. Not white people—Black people, where the idea of who was the best, toughest, was part of life. We have a history that’s different from a lot of people, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t cheat on each other, kill each other, love each other, marry each other, do all that, things that, really, people anywhere in the world do.”
And this complex and often complicated way of life was sharply distilled in many of his plays.