Charles Fuller Drama Analysis
While the plays of Charles Fuller, like those of other African American dramatists, explore the tensions in a society in which the African American minority is constantly exploited and repressed by the white majority, Fuller has set his sights on changing the way Western civilization perceives black people. At the same time, he attempts to avoid stereotyping whites, insisting that groups are formed of individuals, and all are different, some good, some bad. As a consequence, his characters have greater depth and complexity, and he avoids the clichéd situations that afflict so many problem plays. He is also deeply interested in telling a story, which is the point at which he usually begins his plays. First, what happened; then, to whom; and finally, why? Even after these questions appear to be answered, the results often raise greater issues that lead to even more perplexing questions. Ambiguity, not resolution, is at the heart of Fuller’s work.
Fuller’s major concern is not only the violence in today’s universe and the way it erodes character but also the violence that black people employ against one another. Although they occupy a world originally shaped by whites who enslaved and abused them, African Americans continue to prey on one another while accepting the role of victim at the hands of their oppressors. The cycle is always the same: sullen passivity that erupts into armed rebellion, followed by chaos, before subjugation and a relapse into bitter acceptance. All of his plays possess this cycle, regardless of the difference in subject matter; artistically, they are a poignant echo of real life, of the race riots that have burned American cities since the 1960’s. Yet, though Fuller’s canvas is large, his use of the personalized grief of his characters gives the plays a human scale; he is never didactic.
In his first full-length play, The Village: A Party, he builds the story around a community composed of five interracial couples. When the black leader falls in love with a black woman, against all the rules of their society, disaster occurs. What is original here is the way Fuller turns accepted convention upside down: In real life, obstacles to marriage confront people of different races. If the play, however, is taken as a metaphor for the barriers encountered by slaves who were forbidden to marry, it becomes clear that Fuller is condemning any law that arbitrarily decides what is right or wrong without considering its effect on human beings. Another early work, In My Many Names and Days, consists of six one-act plays about a black family, a structure he would adopt again when planning his five-play cycle of full-length dramas. The Candidate represents his study of a black man’s campaign to become mayor of his city and the struggles this entails, revealing Fuller’s growing attraction to political themes.
The Brownsville Raid
Fuller, who was becoming increasingly engrossed by the Civil War (he dates the African American relation to the United States from the Emancipation Proclamation), blended politics with history in his greatest success to date, The Brownsville Raid. While working in New York with the Negro Ensemble Company, which had previously staged his first play for the group (In the Deepest Part of Sleep), Fuller showed the direction that his future plays would take. Using a historical event as its basis, The Brownsville Raid dramatizes the story of a company of black soldiers who, in 1906, were wrongfully accused of causing a riot in Texas and shooting a man. In the play, Fuller also explores the relationship between President Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, who asks his black editors to play down the “incident” to preserve the peace. The soldiers are dishonorably discharged, and only sixty years later are they vindicated when the truth is discovered. For all of them, however, it is too late.
Zooman and the Sign
Although Fuller returned to a smaller-scale play with Zooman and the Sign, he again used the device of a murder investigation, which had already appeared in The Brownsville Raid, to propel the story. In addition, he began experimenting with the title character’s soliloquies, which alternated with the general action, giving the play an abrupt, stop-start rhythm. The situation in Zooman and the Sign is one all too recognizable today: A twelve-year-old girl is accidentally killed in a fight between two street gangs, and the play charts the efforts of her anguished parents to discover the killer. Equally harrowing is the underlying theme: The father, in despair that none of his neighbors will come forward to identify the killer (because they are afraid that as witnesses they will have to deal with the police, though they themselves are innocent), puts up a sign outside his house proclaiming that his daughter’s killers are free because of the community’s indifference. The neighbors, in turn, are so incensed by the accusation that they threaten his life and attempt to tear down the sign. Their rage, in short, is turned against one of their own people; they have lost their sense of responsibility to one another because it has been destroyed by the very institution that should be protecting them: the law. Here, Fuller has touched on a universal theme, for in just such a way were Nazi concentration-camp monitors, though prisoners themselves, wont to ally themselves against their fellow captives because of their own brutalization. Meanwhile, the killer, Zooman, has proclaimed himself to the audience and in his soliloquies explains his way of life, noting that if a black man...
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