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Charles Fuller, Pulitzer recipient for ‘A Soldier’s Play,’ dies at 83

Mr. Fuller poses, at his home in New York in 1977. He earned the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his acclaimed “A Soldier’s Play.”Jerry Mosey/Associated Press

Charles Fuller, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1982 for “A Soldier’s Play,” which finally made it to Broadway 38 years later, in a production that earned two Tony Awards, died Monday in Toronto. He was 83.

His wife, Claire Prieto-Fuller, confirmed the death.

Mr. Fuller was only the second Black playwright to win the Pulitzer for drama. (Charles Edward Gordone won in 1970 for “No Place to Be Somebody.”) His plays often examined racism and sometimes drew on his background as an Army veteran. Both of those elements were evident in “A Soldier’s Play,” which was Mr. Fuller’s reimagining of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd” and centered on the murder of a Black Army sergeant and the search for the culprit.

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The play was first staged in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company in New York with a cast that included Denzel Washington. Frank Rich, in his review in The New York Times, called it “a relentless investigation into the complex, sometimes cryptic pathology of hate” and praised Mr. Fuller’s delineation of both the Black and the white characters.

“Mr. Fuller demands that his Black characters find the courage to break out of their suicidal, fratricidal cycle,” Rich wrote, “just as he demands that whites end the injustices that have locked his Black characters into the nightmare.”

Hollywood came calling. A 1984 film version, retitled “A Soldier’s Story” and directed by Norman Jewison, had a cast that included Washington, Howard E. Rollins Jr., David Alan Grier, Wings Hauser, Adolph Caesar, and Patti LaBelle. It received three Oscar nominations, including one for Mr. Fuller’s screenplay.

In “A Soldier’s Play” and his other works, Mr. Fuller strove to serve up not idealized Black characters but ones who reflected reality.

“In the ’60s and early ’70s, Black plays were directed at whites,” Mr. Fuller told The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1984, when the Negro Ensemble Company’s production of “A Soldier’s Play” was staged in San Diego. “They were primarily confrontational pieces, whose major concern was to address racism and white-Black relationships in this country. Now we are much more concerned with examining ourselves, with looking at our own situations — historically in many instances. We are seeing characters who are more complex, ones who have bad qualities as well as good ones.”

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“A Soldier’s Play,” he told the Times in 2020, drew in part on his upbringing in a tough neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

“I grew up in a project in a neighborhood where people shot each other, where gangs fought each other,” he said. “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.”

Charles H. Fuller Jr. was born March 5, 1939, in Philadelphia. His father was a printer, and his mother, Lillian Teresa Fuller, was a homemaker and foster mother. He was a student at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia when he attended his first play, a production performed in Yiddish at the Walnut Street Theater.

“I didn’t understand a word,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977, but somehow it sparked his interest in becoming a playwright.

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He studied for two years at Villanova University and then joined the Army, where his postings included Japan and South Korea. After four years, he returned to Philadelphia, taking night classes at LaSalle College (now University) while working as a city housing inspector.

In 1968, he and some friends founded the Afro-American Arts Theater in Philadelphia, but they had no playwrights, so Mr. Fuller gave it a try.

One result was his first staged play, “The Village: A Party,” about a racially mixed utopia, which was produced in 1968 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

“What the evening proves,” Ernest Albrecht wrote in a review in The Home News of New Brunswick, N.J., “is that the theater is not Fuller’s bag.”

But Mr. Fuller kept at it. In the 1970s, he relocated to New York, where the Negro Ensemble Company in 1974 staged his drama “In the Deepest Part of Sleep” and opened its 10th anniversary season in 1976 with another of his plays, “The Brownsville Raid,” based on a 1906 incident in Texas in which Black soldiers were accused of a shooting. Walter Kerr, writing in the Times, praised Mr. Fuller for not making the play a simple story of racial injustice.

“Mr. Fuller is interested in human slipperiness, and his skill with self‐serving, only slightly shady evasions of duty helps turn the play into the interesting conundrum it is,” Kerr wrote.

Although he set out as a playwright to examine difficult questions, Mr. Fuller did so with a certain degree of optimism about the future of the United States.

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“America has an opportunity, with all its technology, to develop the first sensible society in history,” he said in the 1977 interview with the Inquirer. “It could provide all its people with some rational way to live together while still glorying in their cultural diversity.”

By the late 1980s, though, Mr. Fuller had tired of New York and moved to Toronto, where he was living at his death. In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, David; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“A Soldier’s Play” was finally produced on Broadway in 2020 by the Roundabout Theater with a cast that included Grier and Blair Underwood. It was eligible to win the best-revival Tony even though it had never been produced on Broadway previously — the more familiar prerequisite for the category — because, under Tony rules, it was by 2020 considered “a classic.” Grier won a Tony for best actor in a featured role in a play.

“It has been my greatest honor to perform his words on both stage and screen,” Grier said of Mr. Fuller on Twitter, adding that “his genius will be missed.”