- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Charles Fuller, the pioneering Philadelphia playwright who received a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination for A Soldier’s Play, has died. He was 83.
Fuller, who also explored racism and the Black experience with his earlier plays The Brownsville Raid and Zooman and the Sign, died Monday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, his son, David, told The Hollywood Reporter.
A Soldier’s Play tells the story of the racially charged investigation by a Black captain for the murder of a Black sergeant on a segregated U.S. Army base in Jim Crow Louisiana in 1944.
Originally produced by New York’s Negro Ensemble Company, the courtroom drama/murder mystery debuted off-Broadway at Theater Four in November 1981 and ran for almost 600 performances through January 1963. It starred Charles Brown as Capt. Richard Davenport and Adolph Caesar as the murdered Sgt. Vernon C. Waters. (Samuel L. Jackson played a private.)
After receiving the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1982, Fuller adapted the play for the renamed 1984 film A Soldier’s Story. Directed by Norman Jewison, it returned Caesar (in an Oscar-nominated turn) as Waters alongside Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Davenport. Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend and David Alan Grier portrayed other soldiers.
Fuller received an Oscar nom for best adapted screenplay, and the film landed another nom for best picture. Amadeus, however, took both awards on Oscar night.
Incredibly, Fuller’s signature work never made it to Broadway until January 2020, when it won Tonys for best revival of a play and best performance by an actor in a featured role in a play for Grier, now playing Waters opposite Blair Underwood as Davenport. The play shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
“It has been my greatest honor to perform his words on both stage and screen, his genius will be missed,” Grier wrote Monday on Twitter.
Fuller said it took almost 40 years for A Soldier’s Story to make it to Broadway because he refused to drop the last line: “You’ll have to get used to Black people being in charge.”
The son of a printer, Fuller was born in Philadelphia on March 5, 1939. He attended Villanova before spending three years in the U.S. Army, serving in Japan and South Korea through 1962. Five years later, he earned his doctor of fine arts degree from La Salle University.
Fuller co-founded the Afro-American Arts Theatre Philadelphia in 1967 and attracted critical attention with his early plays The Perfect Party (about an interracial marriage), In the Deepest Part of Sleep and The Brownsville Raid. That last one was about the dishonorable discharge of an entire Black U.S. Army regiment in 1906 for inciting a riot.
In 1980, the Negro Ensemble Company presented Zooman and the Sign at Theater Four, starring Giancarlo Esposito in the title role alongside Mary Alice. The story of a father’s search for the killer of his 12-year-old daughter on the family’s front porch, it won Fuller an Obit award. (He then adapted Zooman for a 1995 telefilm, and Chadwick Boseman starred in it on stage in 2000.)
In The New York Times, Walter Kerr wrote that he found Zooman “more satisfying than most of the serious work I’ve attended this year.”
A 2005 off-Broadway revival of A Soldier’s Play starred Taye Diggs and Anthony Mackie, and a national tour starring Norm Lewis will begin this fall. It’s also being adapted into a limited series by Sony Pictures Television.
Fuller also produced Civil War-era plays that included Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic. For television, he wrote The Sky Is Gray for PBS in 1980 and A Gathering of Old Men for CBS in 1987.
In addition to his son, survivors include his wife, Claire; a daughter-in-law; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
Talking about how he separated his life from his work, Fuller said in a 1982 interview: “My argument is on the stage. I don’t have to be angry. OK? I get it all out right up there. There’s no reason to carry this down from the stage and into the seats. And it does not mean that I am not enraged at injustice or prejudice or bigotry. It simply means that I cannot be enraged all the time. To spend one’s life being angry, and in the process doing nothing to change it, is to me ridiculous. I could be mad all day long, but if I’m not doing a damn thing, what difference does it make?”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day