Charles Fuller Essay - Critical Essays

Charles Fuller American Literature Analysis

Fuller has written a number of tough, uncompromisingly honest plays that can be disturbing to both black and white audiences. His works deal with such controversial issues as miscegenation, racism, reverse racism, and ruthless inner-city violence. He has shown an unflinching determination to scrutinize the consequences of easy liberal solutions to human problems that might occur in the black community and that need to be carefully examined. His plays address the issue of racial justice, to be sure, but he is also keenly aware of the rights of the individual.

The Brownsville Raid, for example, is a three-act play based on a historical incident that occurred in 1906, when a U.S. Army regiment was dishonorably discharged after the black soldiers refused to confess to inciting a riot in Brownsville, Texas. There was no evidence that the men were responsible for the riot, and the men’s records were cleared some sixty-six years later when the Army reexamined the case and determined that a gross injustice had been committed. In the play, career Army Sergeant Mingo Saunders has faith that the Army will protect his men, but that faith is betrayed.

Fuller’s interest in the conflict between people and institutions is also evident in his other, more widely recognized work in a military setting, A Soldier’s Play. The play is mainly about justice, military justice and racial justice, but it also concerns integration in an army that is moving toward the last months of World War II. Integration is not to be achieved, of course, for at least another decade, but Fuller’s play is historically accurate in suggesting that initial goals of civil rights were achieved in the military, in advance of society at large. The irony of A Soldier’s Play is that the black soldiers win the right to fight—and then die in combat in Germany.

Fuller pushes the envelope of integration in The Village: A Party by focusing upon the issues of racially mixed couples working to achieve a utopian social experiment, an experiment that works until the leader of the community falls in love with a woman of his own color and becomes a threat to the experiment. In this play, a relationship based upon love cannot succeed unless the colors of the partners are properly matched. The idealistic participants in this experiment do not account for the irrationality of human emotion.

Fuller has never glorified African Americans simplistically, for he is painfully aware of the problems that beset the black community. Zooman and the Sign, for example, dramatizes the consequences of ghetto violence by portraying the death of a twelve-year-old girl who is killed by a stray bullet in a neighborhood gang fight. In the play, the father of the dead girl confronts the same fear and apathy that one might expect to find in any neighborhood of any city. Frightened citizens fear becoming involved, even for the good of their neighborhood. When the father posts a sign on his front porch begging neighbors who witnessed the killing to come forth, he is ostracized by cowards who accuse him of “bringing the neighborhood down.”

Part of the problem is a reluctance of blacks to cooperate with the police, but this cultural sticking point could also be considered an excuse to avoid taking action. This is a discomforting play that takes on openly such problems as armed teenagers on the streets. Zooman himself, the murderer, is a brutal fifteen-year-old thug, but he is also a victim of his environment. He is depicted as something besides merely a heartless villain.

Fuller turned to the reality of the streets for Zooman and the Sign and to the reality of history for The Brownsville Raid, but he made a significant dramatic advance with A Soldier’s Play. The work reflects the atmospheric “reality” of black troops serving in the Deep South during World War II. It also takes the form of an American tragedy, with two potentially tragic protagonists, Sergeant Waters and Private First Class Melvin Peterson, both of whom have absolute notions of what constitutes proper behavior for African Americans in charge of a black company.

Waters hates ignorant “geechies” who perform for whites in expected ways which he considers demeaning and embarrassing. He is obsessed with changing such behavior. He believes that the only way for a black person to succeed in a white world is to adapt white ways, to imitate white speech and assimilate white ambition. He is profoundly embarrassed by country blacks and by black culture in general, as he has spent his life attempting to escape from it.

Waters attempts to change a good-natured country black named C. J. Memphis, but he ends up driving the man to suicide. For this, Waters is hated by his soldiers, two of whom, Peterson and Smalls, encounter him on a country road and shoot him dead. Peterson, the assassin, kills Waters because he cannot condone Waters’s behavior. At one point, he asks Waters, “What kind of colored man are you?” He challenges Waters, and the two of them fight at one point, but in fact Waters, who beats Peterson in the fight, also respects him for his spunk and courage.

Peterson, however, despises the sergeant and feels no remorse. Both men are dehumanized by their idealism, but Waters is forced to understand his error in judgment in his treatment of C. J. and therefore reaches a moment of discovery, thus fulfilling a part of the classic Aristotelian tragic formula. He ruins his life and is made to understand why this has happened. His fate is tragic before his death. Even before his abuse of C. J., Waters is presented as being desperately unhappy. The most perceptive reading of his character comes from the unschooled C. J., who says of him, “Any man ain’t sure where he belongs must be in a whole lotta pain.”

As critics were quick to notice, the play is a tragedy disguised as a mystery that also explores the dynamics of racism. A Soldier’s Play won the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1982, no doubt because it represents an advance in both form and substance. In 1984, it was transformed into a motion picture that earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film opens up the play and makes a few changes, the most substantial of which are the removal of a bitterly ironic final monologue by Captain Davenport, the investigating officer, and the fact that in the film both Peterson and Smalls are captured, giving Davenport a final opportunity to confront the murderer with the following words: “Who gave you the right to judge? To decide who is good enough to be a Negro, and who is not?” These questions drive home the nature of the tragedy and also the similarity between Peterson and the man he kills.

The film is excellently crafted and wonderfully acted; it both simplifies and clarifies the meaning of the original play. The film was made at a cost of $6 million and earned more than $30 million at the box office, becoming a runaway crossover hit. It set a significant precedent and marked the beginning of the 1980’s renaissance of serious black films.

Fuller played a significant role in bringing about that renaissance. He earned an Obie Award for Zooman and the Sign as well as the Pulitzer Prize and other awards for A Soldier’s Play. It is particularly surprising, therefore, that by the early 1990’s, only one of his plays remained in print. He is surely one of the most gifted playwrights of his generation, regardless of color, and a major theatrical talent.

The Village: A Party

First produced: 1968

Type of work: Play

Idealists living in a racially mixed community as a social experiment turn upon their leader when he wavers in his principles.

The Village: A Party is a two-act play that was first produced in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1968, then produced five months later in New York City in 1969 under the ironic title The Perfect Party. It is an important early play for Fuller because it raises questions of black awareness that resurface in A Soldier’s...

(The entire section is 3370 words.)