Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of the searing and acclaimed “A Soldier’s Play” who often examined and exposed how social institutions can perpetuate racism, has died at the age of 83.
Fuller died of natural causes in Toronto on Monday, his wife Claire Prieto-Fuller said.
Fuller’s plays were full of complex characters and a defiance of convention.
“The best way to dispel stereotypes and massive lies is to say something as close to the truth as possible,” Fuller once told Newsday. In a review of his work, The New York Times said, “Clichés of form, plot, and character crumble like clay pigeons at a shooting range.”
Fuller’s most famous work, A Soldier’s Play, used a military setting in his story about the search for the killer of a black sergeant on a Louisiana army base during World War II. It dissected the deep-rooted racism and internal divisions within the black military community and wrapped them in murder mystery.
The play won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and two years later became the Oscar-nominated best picture, A Soldier’s Story, for which Fuller wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination.
“I just want to be considered a playwright who’s lucky enough to have written a ‘hit’ and who wants to keep writing plays that break the wall,” he told the New York Times in 1982.
The work has attracted a who’s who of black acting talent. The film version starred a young Denzel Washington, who appeared in his first incarnation in New York opposite Samuel L. Jackson. An Off-Broadway revival in 2005 attracted Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie and Steven Pasquale to the cast.
The play made its Broadway debut in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, starring David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood, and received seven Tony nominations, including a revival of Best Play. Grier won the Tony for a Lead Actor and the play won Best Revival.
“It has been my greatest honor to perform his words both on stage and screen, his genius will be missed,” Grier tweeted in sorrow.
Born in Philadelphia, Fuller attended Villanova University and then enlisted in the Army in 1959, where he served in Japan and South Korea. He later studied at La Salle University.
He was working as a housing inspector in Philadelphia when the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ was directing his drama The Perfect Party, which was pulled from Broadway in 1969. The subject was intermarriage, but Fuller joked, “It was one of the worlds worst interracial plays.”
Fuller wrote plays for the Negro Ensemble Company and his works have been performed in New York at the New Federal Theater and the Henry Street Settlement. His breakthrough came with The Brownsville Raid, which told the true story of black soldiers who were dishonorably discharged in 1906 after being wrongly accused of murder. Only decades later did the army relieve them.
Five years after The Brownsville Raid, Fuller used similar themes and settings in A Soldier’s Play, for which he was influenced by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Both novels were set in the military during the war, but Fuller used the structure to discuss race in modern America.
In its 2005 review of the play, The New York Times said Fuller “uses well-defined conventions to invoke disturbingly fuzzy shades of racism, resentment, and self-loathing among black men waiting to fight in a white man’s army.” , adding, “These feelings are messy, confusing, contradictory.”
Fuller said he was drawn to the military in his plays because “historically it’s the only place where black men are equal to white men,” he told Newsday in 1988.
Another of his more successful plays was the 1980 domestic drama Zooman and the Sign, about a former prizefighter whose 12-year-old daughter is killed while gambling. None of his neighbors will come forward to identify the killers. When the father put up a sign asking for help, it attracted the press. But that makes him – not the killers – a pariah of the neighborhood.
The New York Daily News called the piece “powerfully clearly spoken, if less than subtly”. Chadwick Boseman played Zooman in 2000 at the age of 23 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Fuller wrote a 1995 made-for-TV film about the play.
Fuller also produced a cycle of Civil War-era plays including Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic. His other credits include the coming-of-age drama The Sky Is Gray for PBS and A Gathering of Old Men for CBS in 1987.
Fuller returned to the military in 2013 with the play One Night…, about a former army truck driver whose life has been thrown off balance since she faced charges of raping three fellow soldiers in Iraq went public. In one scene, she asks the Veterans Affairs Department for disability benefits. “Why am I a hero when I die,” she says, “and a nuisance when I live?”
In addition to his wife, Fuller is survived by a son, David, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
https://www.latimes.com/obituaries/story/2022-10-04/charles-fuller-pulitzer-prize-winning-playwright-soldiers-play-dies ‘A Soldier’s Play’ playwright Charles Fuller dies