A Soldier’s Play writer Charles Fuller dies aged 83

The play was later made into an Oscar-nominated movie, A Soldier’s Story.
The play was later made into an Oscar-nominated movie, A Soldier’s Story.

Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Soldier’s Play, has died aged 83.

Fuller, whose work often explored and exposed how social institutions can perpetuate racism, died of natural causes on Monday in Toronto, his wife, Claire Prieto-Fuller, said.

His plays were filled with complex characters and an undercutting of conventions. He once told Newsday: “The best way to dispel stereotypes and massive lies is telling something as close to the truth as you can.”

In one review of his work, The New York Times said “cliches of form, plot and character shatter like skeets at a shooting range”.

Fuller’s most famous work, A Soldier’s Play, used a military setting in its tale of the search for the murderer of a black sergeant on an army base in Louisiana during the Second World War.

It dissected entrenched racism as well as internal divisions in the black military community, wrapping it in a murder mystery.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1982 and two years later was made into the Oscar-nominated movie A Soldier’s Story, for which Fuller wrote the screenplay and earned an Oscar nomination.

“I’d just like to be considered a playwright fortunate enough to have written a hit, and who wants to keep on writing plays that break through the wall,” he told The New York Times in 1982.

His work has attracted the finest black acting talent. The film version starred a young Denzel Washington, who had appeared in its first stage incarnation in New York alongside Samuel L Jackson.

A 2005 revival off-Broadway starred Taye Diggs, Anthony Mackie and Steven Pasquale.

It made its Broadway debut in the pandemic-shortened season of 2020-21 with David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood and earned seven Tony nominations, including best play revival. Grier won the Tony for featured actor and the play won best revival.

“It has been my greatest honour to perform his words on both stage and screen, his genius will be missed,” Grier tweeted in mourning.

Playwright Lynn Nottage wrote: “His work was and remains a major source of inspiration for me and in many ways became my invitation to write plays.”

Born in Philadelphia, Fuller attended Villanova University and then joined the Army in 1959, serving in Japan and South Korea. He later studied at La Salle University.

He was working as a housing inspector in Philadelphia when the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, mounted his drama The Perfect Party, which moved off-Broadway in 1969. The theme was intermarriage, but Fuller joked “it was one of the world’s worst interracial plays”.

Fuller wrote plays for the Negro Ensemble Company, and his works were mounted at New Federal Theatre and Henry Street Settlement.

His breakthrough came with The Brownsville Raid, which told the true story of black soldiers who were dishonourably discharged in 1906 after they were wrongly accused of murder. Only decades later did the US army exonerate them.

Five years after The Brownsville Raid, Fuller used similar themes and settings in A Soldier’s Play, for which he was influenced by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd. Both works were set in the military during wartime, but Fuller used the structure to discuss race in modern America.

Fuller returned to the topic of the military with the play One Night… in 2013, which centred on a former Army truck driver whose life has unravelled since she went public with charges of rape against three fellow servicemen in Iraq.

In one scene, she asks the Veterans Affairs Department for disability benefits: “Why am I a hero if I die, and a nuisance if I live?”

In addition to his wife, Fuller is survived by a son, David, a daughter-in-law, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.