Charles Fuller is more surprised than anyone that his most celebrated play has finally made it to Broadway.
After winning an Obie Award for “Zooman and the Sign” in 1980, he became only the second African-American awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for “A Soldier’s Play” in 1982.
He went on to write screenplays, a young adult novella and other dramas (most recently “One Night,” in 2015). Now 80, he is the first to admit that they were mainly for black audiences, and as a result, Broadway and the attention that comes with it was not what he was aiming for, much less needed.
But there he was in a theater district hotel suite after flying in from Toronto for opening night, both straining to hear and eagerly trying to answer rapid-fire questions about “A Soldier’s Play,” directed by Kenny Leon for the Roundabout Theater Company.
Set on a segregated Louisiana military base in 1944, “A Soldier’s Play” dramatizes the murder of Vernon Waters, an African-American sergeant, and the investigation of his death by Capt. Richard Davenport, a lawyer and one of the few highly ranked black officers in the entire United States military.
Portraying the complex history of black soldiers and white segregationists, “A Soldier’s Play” also explores the effects of racism on African-American men and the resulting generational and ideological divisions.
The original production, directed by Douglas Turner Ward for Off Broadway’s Negro Ensemble Company, featured Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in small roles, and was later made into an Academy Award-nominated film.
But it wasn’t universally acclaimed. After the play won the Pulitzer, the Black Arts poet and playwright Amiri Baraka castigated Fuller as representing “the most backward sector of the black middle class.”
Yet David Alan Grier — who played the likable Pvt. C.J. Memphis onstage in 1982, Cpl. Bernard Cobb in the 1984 film, and now stars on Broadway as the hateful Sgt. Waters — said the play endures precisely because it complicates monolithic images of African-American culture. “Usually you had one black person who spoke for the entire diaspora,” he said. “There is no godlike person.”
In an interview, Fuller talked about the impact of the Pulitzer, his rejection of idealized black characters and why his current Korean War-set play might never make it to the stage. Here are edited excerpts.
When you won the Pulitzer, there was talk of “A Soldier’s Play” coming to Broadway, but it never did. Why do you think it took so long?
Roundabout wanted to do it out of the clear blue sky. It’s strange. Honestly, I never thought about Broadway because it wasn’t there to do things that came out of the Negro Ensemble Company. If the plays got done, I was very happy. It wasn’t something that I looked forward to or chased after.
You’ve written many plays. Why do you think this one has had such a long stage life?
Because it has a Pulitzer Prize. Really, that’s the reason. If it didn’t, I don’t know that it would be anything that anybody would want to do. I’m delighted that someone wants to, but I couldn’t imagine that it was on the road to Broadway. So what has happened now is nice.
Why, when writing the play in 1982, did you set it in World War II?
Whenever you think about World War II and World War I, you think about white people. Aren’t we worth some kind of interest — all those deaths of Africans, African-Americans, black people from all over the world? I think that they just forgot us, or if not forgot, didn’t feel like talking about the black people that fought in those wars and saved Europe and saved the United States as well. We have died, and they haven’t said thank you. So I say, thank you.
You enlisted in the Army in the ’60s?
Is it fair to say that by setting your play in the military you were able to show both desegregation and the way in which black people interact with each other at the same time?
Yes, sure. We died for America. And no attention, or not a lot of attention, has been focused on the African-Americans and the Africans who died making Europe continue. The French thanked the Africans that fought for them. But America continued to have a policy that did not allow black men to go to Europe in the first place. Because I was in the Army [I knew] we die, too.
But in your play, black characters also die at the hands of other black people.
I grew up in a project in a neighborhood where people shot each other, where gangs fought each other. Not white people — black people, where the idea of who was the best, toughest, was part of life. We have a history that’s different than a lot of people, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t cheat on each other, kill each other, love each other, marry each other, do all that, things that really, people anywhere in the world do.
Adolph Caesar, who played Sgt. Waters, said that he thought his character’s death was “a kind of mercy killing.” Did you see it that way?
Well, there are rotten black people. To believe that that’s not true is nonsense. We are human, very human, and I like to write strong characters who are no better or worse than anybody else on earth. And when we hurt each other as the characters did in the play, I wanted to make sure that we understood that it is horrifying that we kill each other. We need to walk away from that completely.
How did “A Soldier’s Play” shape your later writing?
It’s not easy to write a play; believe me. That’s the reason I haven’t written a play since then, small things but not anything that would be two and a half hours. There’s some history things that I would like to do, but not right now. And I probably won’t do them, really.
It’s horrifying. I’m not thinking about some happy-go-lucky thing. It’s [set] after the Korean War. It needs to be done. 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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