Charles Fuller, the acclaimed playwright best known for his Pulitzer winner, “A Soldier’s Play,” has died. He was 83.
A Philadelphia native and army veteran, Fuller wrote plays that aimed to portray Black Americans authentically as multidimensional, complex characters rather than confine them to stereotypical roles or erase them entirely.
His works often highlighted uncomfortable truths about racism in the US and were written with 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.
He wrote plays for Black audiences
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.”
‘A Soldier’s Play’ wins the Pulitzer
Its first off-Broadway production, directed by his long-term creative partner and co-founder of the NEC, Douglas Turner Ward, starred Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in supporting roles. (A 2006 off-Broadway revival featured Taye Diggs and Anthony Mackie in its cast.)
At the time of his win, he dedicated his award to his NEC collaborators.
“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: best picture, best adapted screenplay for Fuller and best supporting actor for fellow NEC collaborator Adolph Caesar.
Fuller’s opus comes to Broadway
The play’s Broadway run was shortened by Covid-19 — having opened in January 2020, it closed that March as the pandemic shuttered theaters for over a year. But Fuller had said he didn’t expect it would ever make it to Broadway in the first place.
Fuller (center, in a brown coat and cap) joined the cast of the Broadway revival of “A Soldier’s Play” onstage to celebrate its opening. Credit: Walter McBride/Getty Images
“Broadway does not drive me,” he told American Theatre. “What always drives my work is: Is it real? Is it important for our people? And if it is, I am successful. If it is not, I wasted everybody’s time in the theater.”
Fuller went on to write 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.”