Charles Fuller, who won Pulitzer for ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ dies at 83

Charles Fuller, who helped bring nuanced, multifaceted Black characters and stories to the forefront of American theater, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for “A Soldier’s Play,” his blistering exploration of racism and violence at a Louisiana Army base during World War II, died Oct. 3 at a hospital in Toronto. He was 83.

His son David Indikator Fuller said Mr. Fuller had dementia, but he did not give a specific cause of death. Mr. Fuller had lived in Canada for about four years, he said, after working for decades in his hometown of Philadelphia.

A soft-spoken writer who liked to populate his plays with sprawling casts of characters, Mr. Fuller launched his theater career in the late 1960s as Black actors and playwrights were pushing to diversify the predominantly White theater scene. Joining the ranks of African American playwrights including Amiri Baraka and Charles Gordone, he said he sought “to depict African Americans, especially African American men, not as the stereotypes we have seen for years, but as we see ourselves.”

“We live lives that are interesting, exciting,” he added, in an interview with American Theatre magazine in 1999. “My struggle all these years has been to do nothing more than to change how people see us, and in doing so perhaps change how we see ourselves.”

With “A Soldier’s Play,” Mr. Fuller became only the second African American playwright — after Gordone — to win the Pulitzer Prize in drama. Loosely adapted from Herman Melville’s novella “Billy Budd,” about a sailor who inadvertently kills one of his superiors, the play followed a Black military lawyer who investigates the murder of a Black Army sergeant in 1944, when the armed forces were still segregated. The suspects include members of the Ku Klux Klan, bigoted White soldiers and, eventually, Black G.I.s.

While Mr. Fuller’s play evoked classic courtroom dramas and detective stories through its use of suspect interviews and flashbacks, “there is nothing usual about the way Mr. Fuller has written his play,” wrote New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. “By the time he reaches his resolution, it’s clear that the identity of the culprit isn’t what really matters here at all … for what Mr. Fuller has written is a relentless investigation into the complex, sometimes cryptic pathology of hate.”

Directed by Douglas Turner Ward for the Negro Ensemble Company, “A Soldier’s Play” premiered off-Broadway in late 1981 with a cast that included future stars Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in small roles. Adolph Caesar starred as the murdered Tech. Sgt. Vernon C. Waters, who is killed at the start of the play but is shown in flashbacks to have tormented his Black soldiers, especially the Southerners, in fits of rage that seemed to suggest a self-loathing stemming from years spent struggling to endure and escape White hatred.

Mr. Fuller said he based the Waters character on the sort of man he met while living in the Philadelphia projects, “someone who wanted to be a king in a place that didn’t need a king.” He also drew from his experience serving in the Army in peacetime Japan and South Korea, and from conversations with his late friend Larry Neal, a poet and cultural critic who helped introduce Mr. Fuller to classic literature when they were both teenagers in Philadelphia. (The play’s setting, the fictional Army base Fort Neal, was named in his honor.)

Not all critics admired Mr. Fuller’s approach to issues of race and resentment. Baraka, a leader of the Black Arts movement, wrote that Mr. Fuller’s point of view embodied “the most backward sector of the black middle class.” But “A Soldier’s Play” ran for more than a year and inspired a critically acclaimed film adaptation, “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), which Norman Jewison directed from a screenplay by Mr. Fuller.

Several of the play’s original cast members reprised their roles in the film, which earned three Oscar nominations, including best picture, best supporting actor for Caesar and best adapted screenplay for Mr. Fuller, who lost to Peter Shaffer for “Amadeus.”

Mr. Fuller went on to write TV movies, a young-adult novel and a cycle of plays set during the Civil War era, but he remained best known for “A Soldier’s Play,” which found a new audience in recent years. The play was revived off-Broadway in 2005 and made its Broadway premiere in 2020, starring David Alan Grier as Waters and Blair Underwood as the military lawyer, Capt. Richard Davenport. The production was forced to close after less than two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I never thought that it would be on Broadway,” Mr. Fuller told NPR after the premiere. In part, he said, the play hadn’t transferred to Broadway in the 1980s because some audience members weren’t prepared for the closing scene, in which Davenport tells a White officer he’d better get used to having African Americans in charge. The dialogue was too incendiary, said Mr. Fuller, who once described American theater as “the most segregated institution in the country, very much the Old South.”

Still, he noted, times had changed. The Broadway production received seven Tony nominations and won two, including best revival, and a national tour is scheduled to start in December.

Charles Henry Fuller Jr. was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1939. His father ran a print shop, and his mother was a homemaker. Together, his parents fostered 20 children while also raising Mr. Fuller and his two younger sisters, according to a 1983 profile in The Washington Post.

Mr. Fuller helped his father proofread galleys, fueling a childhood love of language, and was 13 when he saw his first play, buying a ticket to see a comedy with Yiddish theater stars Molly Picon and Menasha Skulnik. He was the lone African American in the audience and didn’t understand a word — “I didn’t know until it started that the whole thing was in Yiddish,” he recalled — but “I felt myself responding to it.”

After thriving in diverse, racially integrated classrooms at parochial school, he enrolled at Villanova University, where he said he encountered racist jeers when students and professors learned he wanted to become a writer. He dropped out of college his junior year, joining the Army in 1959. Mr. Fuller served for four years before continuing his education at La Salle College (now a university) in Philadelphia, taking evening classes while working as a loan collector, college counselor and city housing inspector.

In his free time, he wrote short stories and co-founded a theater group, taking up playwriting in part so the actors had material to perform. While still in college, he attended the 1966 premiere of his first full-length work.

“I remember walking out onstage on opening night — to the applause of my family and friends, of course — and realizing I would never go back to school again,” he told the Times in 1988. “I was a playwright and that’s what I was going to do. And after 1970, I never worked a 9-to-5 job again.”

Mr. Fuller later came to view his debut play, which ran off-Broadway in 1969 under the title “The Perfect Party,” as “one of the world’s worst interracial plays.” But it helped him meet members of the Negro Ensemble Company, for whom he wrote the 1974 coming-of-age story “In the Deepest Part of Sleep.”

“It went down the drain, too,” he told the Times, adding that its failure prompted him “to do something bigger and beyond myself, something historical, that would stand outside normal Black theater.” The result, “The Brownsville Raid,” was based on the story of Black Army soldiers who were wrongly accused of murder in the early 20th century, and it marked an initial foray into the themes and setting that defined “A Soldier’s Play.”

Mr. Fuller next won an Obie Award, honoring off-Broadway theater, for his 1980 play “Zooman and the Sign,” about a psychotic young man (originally played by Giancarlo Esposito) who murders a 12-year-old girl playing on her porch in Philadelphia. The play was adapted into a 1995 TV movie with a screenplay by Mr. Fuller and was twice revived off-Broadway.

His wife of 44 years, Miriam Nesbitt, died in 2006. They had two children: Charles Fuller III, who died in 2013, and David Fuller, who survives him. Mr. Fuller is also survived by his wife of 14 years, Claire Prieto-Fuller, a Trinidadian Canadian filmmaker; a stepson, Ian Prieto; a sister; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Mr. Fuller declined to discuss his Army service in interviews, saying it was a part of his life he would “prefer to forget,” but he returned to a military setting several times in his work. His last off-Broadway play, “One Night …,” examined sexual assault in the armed forces, opening in 2013 to mixed reviews.

After “A Soldier’s Play” premiered on Broadway, he told the Times he was researching a new project set after the Korean War. “I’m not thinking about some happy-go-lucky thing. … It needs to be done,” he said, describing a project that apparently remained unfinished. “But I don’t know if I’m going to do it. I’ve been playing with it for years. Right now, if I did what’s in my head, no one would come to see the play.”

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