Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Charles Fuller, winner of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for A Soldier's Play (1982), is a co-founder of the Afro-American Arts Theatre in Philadelphia.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize
A playwright born in 1939 in the Philadelphia area, Charles Fuller has been a prominent figure in black theatre for more then thirty years. As co-founder of the Afro-American Arts Theatre, Fuller’s life experience ranges from college education, working as a housing inspector, and military service—all of which heavily influence his work. His most renowned work, A Soldier’s Play (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1982) was made into a movie.
Born in 1939, in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charles Fuller is the son of Charles H., a printer, and Lillian (Anderson) Fuller. Graduating Roman Catholic High School in 1956, Fuller went on to attend Villanova University and later LaSalle University.
In 1958, after attending Villanova University for only two years, Fuller joined the army as a petroleum laboratory technician. Though stationed in Japan and Korea for four years total, he does not discuss much of his overseas experience. However, the impact of his experience can clearly be seen in some of his best known plays about Army life. Following his service, Fuller returned to Philadelphia, where he worked as a housing inspector in the Ludlow Section. It was during this time that Fuller received insight into social breakdown and moral desperation of people living in poverty. Yet, in the same setting, these people showed remarkable courage and spiritual strength. It would be these experiences that would enrich his dramatic characterizations. About this time, he also attended LaSalle College from 1965-1968. In 1970, supported through grants, Fuller gave up his job as a housing inspector to write full-time for the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and, in 1982, Fuller would receive honorary doctorates from both Villanova and LaSalle Universities.
Charles Fuller is widely known as a playwright. His first professionally produced play was The Perfect Party (1969). Since then, Fuller has written numerous plays and the most well-known are The Brownsville Raid (1976), Zooman and the Sign (1982) and A Soldier’s Play (1982). The Brownsville Raid centers on a mysterious shootout in 1906 in Brownsville, Texas. Based on actual events, Fuller tells the tale of how 167 soldiers were dishonorably discharged from the 25th Infantry, an all-Black unit stationed there. Zooman and the Sign (winner of an Obie Award for excellence in an off-Broadway production) is about the effects of violence in the inner city. The story features the conflict of social causation versus personal accountability, and the role of just men in society, when a twelve year old girl is accidentally murdered by a teenager named “Zooman” and the neighborhood does nothing.
Each of his plays demonstrates a strong historical basis, but Fuller insists these influences are much broader in range. In an interview with Esther Harriot, Fuller addressed the question of the origins of his plays by saying, “Everything I touch [inspires me], really everything. I can’t really point to one thing.” Of course, he does acknowledge history and other novels as influence in his work. In A Soldier’s Play, Fuller’s tale focuses on the murder of a non-commissioned black officer Vernon Waters at Fort Neal in April of 1944. Captain Richard Davenport, a black lawyer of the 353rd Police Corps Unit, comes in to investigate the murder. Davenport functions as the narrator during which, through his interviews and interrogations, we gain insight into the dynamic of Company B in the 221st Chemical Smoke Generating Company. Focusing on an all-black company in a segregated camp in Louisiana, the play’s subject is self-hatred illustrated by the relationship between Private C.J. Memphis and Tech/Sergeant Waters, who are both dead at the beginning of the play. Waters’ goal is to show the white man that, “blacks are just like them” through acting white himself. C.J., a laid-back, superstitious, southern musician, embodies the stereotype of the black man that Waters loathes and seeks to expunge.
This gripping military drama about racism, self-hatred, humanism, and personal responsibility won Fuller the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 and he became the second African American author (the first being Charles Gordone in 1970) to win the Pulitzer Prize. In his 1981 drama review of A Soldier’s Play, Frank Rich wrote “[A Soldier’s Play is] a mature and accomplished work — from its inspired opening up of a conventional theatrical form to its skillful portraiture of a dozen characters to its remarkable breadth of social and historical vision. It’s also a play that speaks to both blacks and whites without ever patronizing either group. Mr. Fuller writes characters of both races well — and he implicates both in the murder of Sergeant Waters.”
Along with great praise for his honest portrayal of men and responsibility, he has also received much criticism, especially from Amiri Baraka in his essay “The Descent of Charles Fuller into Pulitzerland and the Need for African American Institutions.” Among his many accusations, the most stinging was, “They have created as political a theater as any in the Black Arts Movement, only it is the politics of our enemies.” Basically, Baraka accused Fuller of writing from the perspective of the “black bourgeoisie” to appease the white audience. However, defenders of Fuller, such as Nilgun Anadolu-Okur in his book Contemporary African American Theater: Afrocentricity in the Works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller, cite his triumph over narrow quality seen in some African American plays and his maintenance of a “more flexible repertory reflecting its socially orientated realism.”
In 2010, Fuller published his first novel, Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York.
At the time of this writing, Fuller lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Village: A Party, Princeton, N.J., McCarter Theater, November 1968; produced as The Perfect Party, New York: Tambellini’s Gate Theater, 20 March 1969.
An Untitled Play, first produced in Philadelphia: Afro-American Arts Theatre, 1970.
In My Many Names and Days, first produced in New York: New Federal Theatre, September 1972.
The Candidate, first produced in New York: New Federal Theatre, April 1974.
In the Deepest Part of Sleep, first produced in New York: St. Marks Playhouse, 4 June 1974.
First Love (one-act), first produced in New York: Billie Holiday Theatre, June 1974.
The Lay out Letter (one-act), first produced in Philadelphia: Freedom Theatre, Spring 1975.
The Brownsville Raid, first produced in New York: Theater DeLys, 5 December 1976.
Zooman and the Sign, New York: Samuel French, 1982.
A Soldier’s Play, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982
We, first produced in New York, Theatre Four, 1988
Eliot’s Coming, first produced in New York City, 1988.
Anadolu-Okur, Nilgun. Contemporary African American Theater: Afrocentricity in the Works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller. New York: Garland, 1997.
Baraka, Amiri. “The Descent of Charlie Fuller into Pulitzerland and the Need for African American Institutions.” Black American Literature Forum (Summer, 1983): 51-4.
Harriot, Esther. American Voices: Five Contemporary Playwrights in Essays and Interviews. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 1988.
Fuchs, Sabrina, and Michael Paller. Fuller, Charles. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Ed. Colin A. Palmer. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006. 887-888. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 14 Sep. 2011Rich, Frank. “Stage: Negro Ensemble Presents ‘A Soldier’s Play.’” New York Times 27 Nov. 1981: C1.
Written by Matthew Keeler, Spring 2006; updated 2018