Fuller, Charles 1939–

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Charles Fuller 1939


At a Glance

Fledgling Playwright

History Beckoned

Another Birth of a Nation

Selected writings


In more than a dozen plays, award-winning playwright Charles Fuller has shown that racism kills, both psychologically and physically. In his tense, powerful plays, Fuller has tried to show how racism perpetuates deeply rooted misconceptions that can best be uprooted by exposure, not violence. His goal in theater is to yank us away from the idea that black people are stereotypical in any way, shape, or form. By attacking the stereotype at the point of origin, you overthrow it. Fuller became the second African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1982 for A Soldiers Tale, a gripping tale about the murder of a black sergeant on an Army base in the South. Fuller also wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, called A Soldiers Story, which was nominated for two Academy Awards.

Fuller became interested in drama when he worked with a theater group in the poorer section of Philadelphia. From writing skits that dramatized the tensions occurring in a racially-mixed ghetto, Fuller soon moved to writing full-length plays. By the mid-1970s, he had become more interested in black history, and in detailing the slow process by which racism has shaped the black community. I wanted to do something bigger and beyond myself, something historical, that would stand outside normal black theater, Fuller told New York Times interviewer Herbert Mitgang. I wanted to open up black theater so that it couldnt be labeled that easily. And he has. Using fully developed protagonists who are neither villains nor heroes, Fuller asks probing questions about racial attitudes in America, and steadfastly refuses to provide easy answers.

Charles Henry Fuller, Jr. was born on March 5, 1939, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Charles Henry Fuller and Lillian Anderson Fuller. One of three children, he was raised in an integrated area in northern Philadelphia and went to multicultural parochial schools. I didnt grow up in a world in which white people were special, he recalled. His love of words developed when he helped his father, a printer, proofread galleys. At thirteen, Fuller saw his first play at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. Although it was in Yiddish, and he understood none of it, it was live theater, and I felt myself responding to it, he told Mitgang.

Later, Fuller and a high school friend spent hours in the public library, where they read the few available books of black writers, as well as a selection of white writers. Reading made the two friends aware of how deeply racism

At a Glance

Born Charles Henry Fuller, Jr., March 5, 1939, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Charles H. {a printer) and Lillian (Anderson) Fuller; married Miriam A. Nesbitt, August 4, 1962; children: Charles III, David. Education: Attended Villanova University, 1956-58; La Salle College, B.A., 1967. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Playwright. Began writing plays in Philadelphia, PA, during the 1960s; Afro-American Arts Theatre, Philadelphia, cofounder and director, 1967-71; WIP-Radio, Philadelphia, writer and director of The Black Experience radio program, 1970-71; Temple University, Philadelphia, professor of African-American studies, 1988Author of television and film screen plays.

Selected awards: Creative Artist Public Service Award, 1974; Rockefeller Foundation fellow, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1976; Guggenheim fellow, 1977-78; Obie Award, Village Voice, and Audelco Award, both for Zooman and the Sign, both 1981; Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Award, Audelco Award, Theatre Club Award, and Outer Circle Critics Award, all for A Soldiers Play, all 1982; Academy award nominations for best picture and screenplay for A Sot-diers Story, 1984; honorary degrees from La Salle College, 1982, Villanova University, 1983, and Chestnut Hill College, 1985.

Member: Dramatists Guild; P.E.N. board of directors, American division; Writers Guild East.

Addresses: Home Philadelphia, PA. Agent Esther Sherman, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

was embedded in their culture, and they resolved to make a difference. Everything about us, all the prejudices, all those things that people had retained in the mythological madness of racism, was in the books, he told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post. It occurred to us: suppose you could change all these libraries, suppose you could make a dent in the preponderance of antiblack material. Wouldnt that be a wonderful thing to do?

After finishing high school in 1956, Fuller enrolled at Villanova University, intending to become a writer. It was there that he encountered racism on a personal level. Though he chose English as his major, a professor called his literary ambitions foolish in an America that still did not welcome black writers. When Fuller sent his stories to the school magazine, the editors laughed at him.

This experience left its mark and determined the direction of Fullers career. He left the university before graduating and joined the U.S. Army in 1959, using his free time during assignments in Virginia, Japan, and South Korea to develop his skills as a writer. In Ebony magazine the writer Frank White, HI noted that Fuller later used the Army in his plays to bring parity to black males, and quoted Fuller as saying, [I]n no other place has it been possible for men to confront men. You cant call a man a fool whose principal function is to defend this country.

After his Army discharge in the early 1960s, Fuller took evening courses at La Salle College in Philadelphia and wrote short stories that emphasized dialogue. To support his writing habit he took a series of day jobs, first at a bank, then as a counselor for minority students at Temple Universitywhere he later became a professor of African-American studiesand finally as a housing inspector in a poor neighborhood. In this last job, Fuller became interested in strengthening communities, and he and several friends established the Afro-American Theater of Philadelphia, for which he wrote several brief, community-oriented dramas.

Fledgling Playwright

As Fullers plays for the Afro-American Theater became longer and more complex, they attracted the attention of the management at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, New Jersey, who commissioned Fuller to write The Village: A Party in 1968. The play introduces a Utopian community of racially mixed couples whose traditions are disrupted when its black leader falls in love with a black woman and the other couples kill him. Fuller provided a fresh perspective on integration, which he suggested makes racial conflict more visible. New York Times reviewer Dan Sullivan observed, Fuller has written a not-too-fanciful fantasy about racial integration that somberly concludes that it will not at present solve anybodys racial problems. The plays originality and urgency are unquestionable and so is the talent of the playwright.

The production later moved to New York City, where it played as The Perfect Party at Tambellinis Gate Theater off-Broadway for a few weeks during the spring of 1969. A man with high artistic standards, Fuller later called it one of the worlds worst interracial plays. Nevertheless, the attention he received for it made him decide to become a professional playwright, and he settled in New York with his wife, Miriam Nesbitt, a nurse and teacher whom he had married in 1962, and their two sons.

In New York Fuller continued writing plays, including The Candidate, which focuses on the experience of a black politician running for mayor in a northern city, and In My Many Names and Days. In 1974, Fullers two-act domestic family drama, In the Deepest Part of Sleep, was produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at the St. Marks Playhouse. It was the first of several plays put on by the company in an association that lasted over a decade and a half.

History Beckoned

By 1976 Fuller was looking to do a historical play outside the realm of traditional black theater, which he characterized as domestic situation plays in which we were examining our lifestyle. Fullers next play, The Brownsville Raid, dramatizes the true story of a U.S. Army regiment that was dishonorably discharged because the black soldiers in it were accused of starting a riot in Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, though no evidence was submitted to indict anyone. In 1972 the Army termed the discharge a gross injustice and cleared the mens records. The play ran for more than 100 performances at the Off-Broadway Theater de Lys.

In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes described the drama as taut and compelling. Other critics commented that it condemned the event without rhetoric and used believable protagonists. Martin Gottfried wrote in the New York Post, [Fullers] play is no mere tract. His white characters are not caricatures, his black soldiers are not made to be aware ahead of their times.

Fullers 1980 social drama, Zooman and the Sign, illustrates how violence is destroying black communities across America. Drawn from Fullers experiences working in the poverty-ravaged Philadelphia projects, the play explores the confrontation between a family and their neighbors after a young girl is shot and killed while playing on her front porch. Fuller explores the anger of the girls middle-income family, the indifference of the neighborssome of whom saw the murderand the casual attitude of the psychotic teenaged killer, Zooman.

The play had a brief run off Broadway, attracting more critical than popular attention. In the Georgia Review, Gerald Weales called Fuller an obviously talented playwright, ambitious in his attempt to deal with difficult and complex themes. Zooman and the Sign won Fuller two Obie awards, an Audelco Award for best playwright, and further illustrated his growing talent and ambition.

Fullers next drama, A Soldiers Play, revolves around the murder of a black technical sergeant on a Louisiana army base during the Second World War. The black officer sent to investigate the case soon discovers that the murderers may not be members of the Ku Klux Klan, as was suspected, but the sergeants own black recruits. As the story develops through a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that the sergeant was consumed with self-hate and took out his anger on black soldiers, hounding one man to death. If racism killed the sergeant, Fuller implies, it was not the simple racism of a white man killing a black man, but the deeper, more damaging effects of a racism that pits members of the same race against each other. Reviewer Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times, By the time he reaches his resolution, its clear that the identity of the culprit isnt what really matters here at all, for what Mr. Fuller has written is a relentless investigation into the complex, sometimes cryptic pathology of hate.

A Soldiers Play ran for more than one year off Broadway in New York City and won Fuller the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, making him the second black American playwright to win the noted award. The controversial drama also won the Audelco and Theater Club awards for best play, the Outer Circle Critics Award for best Off-Broadway play, and the New York Drama Critics Award for best American play. Fuller penned the screenplay for the 1984 movie, A Soldiers Story, which was adapted from the play and won an Academy award nomination for best picture and screenplay.

Another Birth of a Nation

During the 1980s, Fuller began working on a series of Civil War and post-war plays in reaction to [t]he idea that Reconstruction was a horrible thing, terrible for the South, run by barbaric black people. The ideas [presented in the classic film] Birth of a Nation. The first of these plays, Sally, takes place from 1862 to 1863, and tells the story of a recently freed slave widow who falls in love with a sergeant in the Union Armys first black regiment. It also explores the anger that the black soldiers felt over receiving lower pay than their white counterparts. The play was performed in the fall of 1989 at Theater Four in New York City. The second play, Prince, about economically exploited ex-slaves in Virginia, also was staged at Theater Four that year.

During 1990, the third and fourth segments of the We series, Jonquil and Burners Frolic, were produced by the Negro Ensemble Company. In her review of Jonquil in the New Yorker, Edith Oliver called the play, which centered around freed slaves who avenge the rape of a female member of their group by a white judge and Ku Klux Klan member, disappointing, perhaps because of too great expectations. About Burners Frolic, which concerns a black businessman whose intention to run for office in 1876, is opposed by a white supremacist, Oliver wrote, Although [the play] seems to lack a strong dramatic tug, its final effect is dramatic indeed.

Though critics noted that the plays in the We series lacked the tightness and finish of Fullers best work, they also recognized that Fuller was attempting something rare in theater: the history of a people told on stage. Oliver noted, Mr. Fuller is a fine, experienced dramatist, who knows all about constructing conventional plays. This series is a kind of experiment. Once the series is complete, we may realize that [he] has opened up a whole new world to us. Fuller has planned a fifth work in the series, and is also working on new plays entitled One Night and Africa.

In addition to his plays, Fuller has written a well-received movie screenplay, scripts for television, a Philadelphia radio show, short stories, and nonfiction. For his works Fuller has received Rockefeller, National Endowment for the Arts, and Guggenheim fellowships, as well as a Creative Artist Public Service Award, two Obies, and the Hazelitt Award from the Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts.

Selected writings


The Village: A Party, first produced at McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1968; produced as The Perfect Party, Tambellinis Gate Theater, New York City, 1969.

The Candidate, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at Henry Street Settlement, New York City, 1974.

In the Deepest Part of Sleep, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at St. Marks Playhouse, New York City, 1974.

The Brownsville Raid, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theater de Lys, New York City, 1976.

Zooman and the Sign, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theater de Lys, 1980.

A Soldiers Play, produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theater Four, New York City, 1981.

We (a series of plays including Sally, Prince, Jonquil, and Burners Frolic), produced by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theater Four, 1989-1990.


A Soldiers Story, (adaptation of A Soldiers Play), Columbia Pictures, 1984.

Paying Up, Paramount, 1993.


Roots, Resistance, and Renaissance (12-week series), WHYY-TV (Philadelphia), 1967.

The Sky Is Gray (American Short Story Series), PBS (New York), 1980.

A Gathering of Old Men, CBS, 1987.

Sonnyboy, 1993.



American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews, McFarland, 1988.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 25, Gale, 1983.

Creating Theater: The Professionals Approach to New Plays, Vintage Books, 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38, Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, 1985.

In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Theater Communications, 1988.

Totem Voices: Plays from the Black World Repertory, Grove Press, 1989.

Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings, Thunders Mouth Press, 1989.


Black American Literature Forum, Summer 1983.

Ebony, March 1983, p. 116.

Emerge, November 1991, p. 52.

Georgia Review, Fall 1981.

Los Angeles Times, August 15, 1982; July 23, 1983; November 6, 1983.

Nation, January 23, 1982.

New Leader, July 12-26, 1982.

Newsweek, December 21, 1981.

New York, January 9, 1989, p. 57.

New York Daily News, December 19, 1988.

New Yorker, December 20, 1976; January 9, 1989, p. 82; January 29, 1990, p. 83; March 19, 1990, p. 99.

New York Post, December 6, 1976; April 13, 1982, p. 23; December 30, 1988.

New York Times, November 13, 1968; March 21, 1969; June 5, 1974; November 8, 1978; December 6, 1981; December 27, 1981; January 10, 1982; January 11, 1982, p. C-13; April 13, 1982; July 31, 1988; December 18, 1988, p. 5; January 15, 1990; February 26, 1990.

Time, January 18, 1982.

Village Voice, December 20, 1976.

Variety, May 13, 1987, p. 104; January 24, 1990, p. 179.

Washington Post, October 26, 1983.

Alison Carb Sussman

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