Charles Fuller

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Charles (H.) Fuller (Jr.) 1939–

Black American playwright.

Fuller explores racism as it relates to a small group of people and to society at large. Honestly and intelligently created, his black and white characters are whole people, not stereotypes. The racial conflict in which they are involved is therefore deeply disturbing—one recognizes Fuller's characters as profoundly human and the racism they face as tragically true.

The Brownsville Raid, Fuller's first major success, is based on a true historical incident. In an almost documentary form and in a restrained style, Fuller artistically constructs the story of the dishonorable discharge of an entire black regiment from the U.S. Army. His portrayal of the black sergeant's subsequent crisis of faith is particularly moving.

In 1982, Fuller won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for A Soldier's Play, also a drama with a military setting. Though developed as a murder mystery, the real mystery studied is human behavior, in particular, black and white relations. As with The Brownsville Raid, critics of A Soldier's Play acclaim its authenticity and depth. Frank Rich describes the latter work as refracting "the effects of racism through people, without having us watch a fire-breathing white racist slap someone around."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108 [brief entry].)

Dan Sullivan

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["The Village: A Party"] leaves you thinking. Mr. Fuller has written a not-too-fanciful fantasy about racial integration that somberly concludes that it will not at present solve anybody's racial problems.

A charismatic black man, married to a white girl, has founded a community for other racially mixed couples. Superficially, the community has been a success, both in terms of the personal happiness of its members and the edification of the world at large; but now its leader has found another woman, and she is black.

Fearing for the community's "image" if their leader is allowed to defect from his dream, the group strikes him down at a birthday party. His widow it is decided, must marry a black man. Utopia has become not just a ghetto but a cell-block.

Mr. Fuller's initial situation is so intellectually provocative that his resolution seems disappointingly melodramatic. Even in a symbolic context, it is as hard to believe that these suburban types would automatically devour their leader as it was to believe a similar situation in Edward Albee's "Everything in the Garden"; in such well-appointed living rooms, discussion always precedes—and generally replaces—action.

However, "The Village" has enough things right with it to make you want to watch Mr. Fuller. His dialogue can crackle—"I knew you before you were black, Nick," the leader's wife tells him bitterly—and he knows how to make a point without words, as when the partygoers are shocked to find themselves pairing off for cards according to race, blacks with blacks, whites with whites.

The argument of Mr. Fuller's play—that integration exacerbates rather than relieves racial tensions—is too important to be treated in the brief fashion allowed here. The play's originality and urgency are unquestionable and so is the talent of the playwright.

Dan Sullivan, "In Switch, Princeton Offers New Plays and Club Here an Old One," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), November 13, 1968, p. 39.∗

Lawrence Van Gelder

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[While] racial strife sunders the world outside, five husbands and wives who founded a village for integrated couples like themselves, meet for a birthday party.

With that as a beginning, "The Perfect Party" [or "The Village: A Party"] … proceeds to raise a number of questions and to answer some.

How are the marriages faring and why? Is the village a success? Is integration a realistic...

(This entire section contains 258 words.)

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solution to the problems of blacks and whites in American society?…

As the couples—drinking, dancing, dining—circulate … Mr. Fuller examines them as individuals, as husbands and wives and as members of society….

As individuals, the 10 characters appear little better or worse than any others. As partners in integrated marriages, they seem unable to surmount their own self-consciousness, ever ready to assume that their problems are soley the product of differences in race. Could there be no other reasons? Mr. Fuller appears to think not.

Given the caliber of the people concerned and their pervasive inability to confront their marriages in other than racial terms, the fate of the community is obvious….

Mr. Fuller's smooth, natural dialogue and deft characterizations … keep "The Perfect Party" at a high level of interest until it falls victim to a quick, weak ending.

Mr. Fuller has permitted his blacks and whites to integrate but has barred them an opportunity to blend. The question of what might have been, or yet may be, remains open.

Lawrence Van Gelder, "Intermarriage under a Microscope," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 21, 1969, p. 42.

Mel Gussow

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["In the Deepest Part of Sleep"] is about the debilitating effect of a mentally disturbed mother on a Philadelphia family in the mid-nineteen-fifties.

As seen through the eyes of a young black adolescent on the brink of manhood, this may be a true experience, at least for the playwright, but it does not hold much interest as theatre.

As was also evident in Mr. Fuller's "Candidate!",… the author has a tendency to overdraw his characters and his situations….

In "In the Deepest Part of Sleep," the mother, released from the hospital after a breakdown, makes obsessive demands on her son, his step-father and her nurse, who is decidedly provocative to both males in the family.

The situation is an obvious one, but it still might be dramatically viable if it were written with insight or at least if it were played in a natural, straightforward manner.

In the opening minutes the play is stricken by bathos and never fully recovers…. [The mother] cries and moans so much that she loses all of our sympathy (and we wonder how the other characters are able to endure her). The play continues, predictably, even, in the end, to a suggestion of an incestuous relationship….

There are several moments in "Deepest Sleep"—just as there were in "Candidate!" (which was about the election of a black mayor in a northern city)—that make it clear that Mr. Fuller is a playwright who should be heard from.

In one touching encounter … the mother confesses her sexual craving to her husband, and when rebuffed, switches immediately to verbal attack. In another, the nurse tries to seduce the son, and the playwright is shrewdly observant about the ineptness of adolescence.

Unfortunately these are only flashes of reality in a play that asks for too much indulgence.

Mel Gussow, "Negro Ensemble Stages Fuller's 'Deepest Sleep'," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 5, 1974, p. 54.

Martin Gottfried

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["The Brownsville Raid"] is based on a true incident. In 1906 the small southern town of Brownsville, Texas was shot up, with one fatality. The townspeople agreed that the rioters were soldiers from the nearby Army base, where the all-black 25th Infantry was stationed. Though there was neither consistency nor evidence from these witnesses, when none of the soldiers confessed the entire regiment of 167 men was dishonorably discharged. No formal charges were ever presented, no trial was ever conducted.

Though it is Fuller's intention to condemn this incident for the disgrace it was, his play is no mere tract. His white characters are not caricatures, his black soldiers are not made to be aware ahead of their times.

They are ordinary men, products of their era. They don't know they should resent their segregation in an all-black regiment. They are too acustomed to being ineligible for commissions to be angry about it. Treatment of them as inferiors was the American way and, in fact, they are proud to be soldiers, proud of the Army.

Such keeping of faith with social history was disciplined of Fuller and the discipline paid off. The power of his play lies in the realization of his characters that they have placed their faith in an Army, an America that would betray them the first chance it got. By staying his anger until it could pay off dramatically, Fuller reaped a more telling harvest of theatrical and thematic power.

His characters are members of a platoon in the doomed regiment. Several are shown, early on, sneaking into the barracks during the shoot-up. For a long stretch of the play they are very possibly guilty and their white captain is not painted as a bigot pure and simple. Quite the contrary, he isn't even a hypocritical liberal. He assumes his men to be honest and knows the locals for the rednecks they are. Only a threat to his career brings out his bigotry. (pp. 77-8)

Booker T. Washington doesn't appear in the play, his representative does, but Fuller is a playwright, not a ratifier of slogans. Washington is treated these days as the ultimate Uncle Tom and though Fuller suggests the man's compromises, they are far from unbitter.

So the play has control over its tone as well as an artistry to its construction. It also has its flaws. There are unnecessary domestic scenes between the platoon sergeant and his wife. There are romantic plot complications that are pure mechanics. The ending tries for irony in an overly familiar way, with the calling off of the soldiers' ultimate fates….

By and large, though, the play is engrossing, unusual and strong. (p. 78)

Martin Gottfried, "A Powerful Play in 'Brownsville'," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1976, New York Post Corporation), December 6, 1976 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXVII, No. 25, December 6, 1976, pp. 77-8).

Edith Oliver

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Most of the action of "The Brownsville Raid" takes place in the barracks of one company, with additional scenes in the quarters of its black sergeant, Mingo Saunders; in the office of its white captain; and in Roosevelt's office in Washington. The script, although documentary in form, escapes most of the pitfalls of fact-as-fiction…. The vitality of the play is in the barracks, and so little is known today about the enlisted men that they are, to all intents, madeup characters. At first, as they go about their military routines, they seem almost anonymous, but so skillfully has Mr. Fuller delineated them that at the end, when each soldier is stripped of his rifle and insignia, while drums are ruffled and an orderly at attention reads to the audience a résumé of what happened to the man in later life, we know all of them pretty well.

The small personal dramas within the large one provide the conflicts and the mystery…. With one exception. Mr. Fuller's white characters are as interesting and as free of stereotype as his black ones. The exception is Theodore Roosevelt, who … is a cardboard figure out of a historical pageant. But "The Brownsville Raid" is no pageant; it is a tragedy, and its pivot is Sergeant Mingo Saunders, whose faith in the Army, after twenty-six years of service, and in the Army's obligation to protect its men, as he protects and rallies and bosses the handful of soldiers under him, is betrayed and totally shattered.

Edith Oliver, "Off Broadway," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 44, December 20, 1976, p. 84.

Julius Novick

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The moral [of The Brownsville Raid] seems to be that black people had better beware of trusting white institutions, and the play carries all the more conviction for being written without hysteria or undue whitey-baiting. All I know about the Brownsville raid I know from Mr. Fuller's play; yet I had no hesitation in accepting his account as essentially factual.

The Brownsville Raid is scrupulous dramatically as well as ideologically: clear, methodical—and a bit dull. It feels as though it had been written according to a manual of playwriting: Everything is planted, prepared for, cemented carefully into place. The characters are plausible enough, but there is not much life to them. The dialogue is stiff and, in a bad sense, rhetorical. "There is just one thing we can do," the sergeant tells his troops, "and that is to stand together like men." Somebody even gets to say, "You forget yourself."

On the sidewalk during an intermission, I spoke up for the play. "It's not sloppy for a minute," I said. "And it's not imaginative for a second," said my friend. Well, at the very end it does become imaginative, for several seconds. As the men are discharged and have their stripes torn off their uniforms, the orderly who reads their names goes on to state what is known about what happened to each man after his discharge, suggesting with understated power how the discharge wrecked the lives of a number of men who had believed in the army. It is a telling stroke, but a small one—scarcely enough to redeem an entire evening. I do not blame Mr. Fuller for having written a realistic play—my continued faith in the possibilities of realism is a source of embarrassment to many of my friends—but for writing the kind of ploddingly conventional play that the enemies of realism have in mind when they attack. (p. 112)

Julius Novick, "How to Write a Play, Dully" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXI, No. 51, December 20, 1976, pp. 111-12.

Gerald Weales

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[Zooman and the Sign shows Charles Fuller] as an obviously talented playwright, ambitious in his attempt to deal with difficult and complex themes. Set in Philadelphia—suggested by an actual killing that occurred in that city—Zooman is concerned with the killer, the grieving family of the victim, and the presumably disintegrating society of which they are products and symptoms. The victim, who is dead when the play begins, is a little girl, killed accidentally as she played jacks on her front stoop. While her family acts out its grief, its need for vengeance or for justice, the teen-age killer is presented to the audience, a jittering, swaggering, self-justifying creature, constantly talking in a fragmented monologue that tells everything to the audience without ever explaining anything. We get the conventional biography—the missing family, the doubtful comradeship of fellow street hustlers, the piddling triumphs of a pointless existence—but the strength of Fuller's Zooman is that his strut and clamor define an imaginary reality in which his every act of violence is a righteous response to the aggression of women who will not let go of their purses, of little girls who persist in being in the line of stray bullets. Without excusing Zooman with the once fashionable assumptions about society as the real criminal, Fuller presents a character who has found his own unhappy, insufficient response to a world that he has known only in the physical and spiritual ruins around him.

The dead girl's family and the neighborhood in which they live are evidence of that decline. The family was coming apart before the murder, the husband and wife living separately. The girl's brother responds to her death by getting a gun, an impulse toward violence which is echoed in the angry speeches of his great uncle. The neighborhood, each family closed in on itself protectively, refuses to give evidence, not to cause trouble, not to become visible. No family, no community, this is a world that Zooman understands and can deal with, but, when the father hangs up the sign on the front porch, calling for witnesses, calling attention to the crime, the house, the street, the bewildered Zooman (in anger and disbelief) comes to tear it down and dies at the uncle's hand. His death becomes part of a larger loss, the loss of the victim and the values which her father somehow hopes to reinvigorate with his sign. The difficulty with the play is that Zooman is so completely realized … that the rest of the characters, however individualized, tend to become representative figures rather than fully formed people. Then, too, the second important theme, the one embedded in the neighborhood's angry response to the sign, is never fully realized, that important confrontation dying with Zooman. The play never quite succeeds in the ambitious terms in which it is conceived, but its aspirations and its incidental strengths make it far more fascinating than many a neater, smaller play. (pp. 600-01)

Gerald Weales, "American Theater Watch 1980–1981: 'Zooman and the Sign'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1981, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXV, No. 3, Fall, 1981, pp. 600-01.

Frank Rich

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"A Soldier's Play" is, to put it simply, a major breakthrough for the promising author of "The Brownsville Raid" and last season's "Zooman and the Sign." This is, in every way, a mature and accomplished work—from its inspired opening up of a conventional theatrical form to its skillful portraiture of a dozen characters to its remarkable breadth of social and historical vision. It's also a play that speaks to both blacks and whites without ever patronizing either group. Mr. Fuller writes characters of both races well—and he implicates both in the murder of Sergeant Waters….

Waters isn't as simple as he seems in the play's early flashbacks. For all his venom and cruelty, he was also a prideful man who refused to toady to whites and who often wanted the best for his fellow blacks. "Who the hell was he?" asks the prosecutor in frustration as the evidence comes in—and it soon becomes apparent that the case can't be solved until that question is resolved.

As the answer comes, Mr. Fuller uses it to illuminate the behavior of every black character in the play, as well as the white society they inhabit. Waters is psychotic, all right, but the basis of his warped, cruel behavior is self-hatred, not hatred—and the cause of that self-hatred is his own recognition of the bankruptcy of his efforts to please whites. Much as he's tried to bury his black roots and as far as he's gone in the Army, Waters just can't escape the demon of racism—that sinking feeling that, for all his achievements, they still hate you. And in Waters's distorted personality, his men see a magnified, mirror image of what they most fear and hate in themselves—the fear of being destroyed by allowing white racism to define the ambitions of one's life.

While we can see why the men might have been tempted to murder Waters, Mr. Fuller recognizes such an act for what it is—both a symbolic and literal form of self-destruction. The playwright took this same moral position in "Zooman," which told the story of a contemporary black community that was too cowardly to identify a murderer in its midst. Here, as before, the playwright has compassion for blacks who might be driven to murder their brothers—because he sees them as victims of a world they haven't made. Yet he doesn't let anyone off the hook. Mr. Fuller demands that his black characters find the courage to break out of their suicidal, fratricidal cycle—just as he demands that whites end the injustices that have locked his black characters into the nightmare.

At the same time, Mr. Fuller places his new play in a historical context that gives it a resonance beyond its specific details. As the investigation proceeds, another, larger drama is played out; the soldiers, who have not seen any wartime action, wait in desperate hope that they may get orders for overseas, so that they can prove that "colored boys can fight" Hitler as well as white boys. But in the playwright's view, this aspiration is just another version of Waters's misplaced ambition to deny his blackness by emulating whites—and just as likely to end in tragic, self-annihilating doom.

Frank Rich, "Negro Ensemble Presents 'Soldier's Play'," in The New York Times, Section II (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 27, 1981, p. 3.

Walter Kerr

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Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play" begins with a killing and ends with a kind of confession. Its particular excitement, however, doesn't really stem from the traditional business of tracking down the identity of the criminal. It comes instead from tracking down the identity of the victim. Suddenly you realize that things just might work out that way. Figure out who the dead man is, or who he thought he was, and you're on your way to nailing the culprit. It's a startling process, and a satisfying one….

[But the author] doesn't mean to settle for the mere cat-and-mouse pleasures of turning suspense-story conventions back to front. He wants to turn everything back to front. I don't think there's an assumption made or a posture adopted—noble or otherwise—that isn't instantly, and properly, stood on its ear. We learn in a hurry to take nothing for granted….

Instead of piecing together a fact out of circumstantial fragments, we find ourselves putting together a face. Focusing and refocusing until definition becomes disturbingly sharp, we arrive at the image of a person, a portrait with a remembered voice and the terrible contrariness of flesh and blood….

[Fuller] must by this time be recognized as one of the contemporary American theater's most forceful and original voices. He's not tendentious; the work isn't agitprop or anything near it. Mr. Fuller isn't really interested in special pleading, but in simply and directly—and cuttingly—observing what really does go on in this world of ours after you've brushed the stereotypes away.

It's fun, for instance, to catch Mr. Friedman, the white captain, in an impulsive compliment to blacks that just happens to be racist…. Then again, it's no fun at all—it's a distressing irony—to hear black troops instantly joyful at the news that they're to be shipped overseas and permitted to fight. The irony, and our distress, is compounded instantly of many things: the men's eagerness to prove themselves, their almost equal eagerness to be relieved of present boredom, the echo of [the sergeant's] disastrous ideals, the simple fact that breaking up camp at this moment may cut off the troubled investigation before its meaning can come plain. (It does come plain, just in time. But it's right that we should first feel alarm at the thought that a unit could be sent into action in order to sidestep a thorny issue.) The author handles every kind of complexity with a sure hand.

Walter Kerr, "A Fine New Work from a Forceful Playwright," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 6, 1981, p. 3.

Leo Sauvage

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Few works this year, on or off Broadway, have been as powerful as Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play….

[It is a well-made mystery], complete with a wholly unexpected solution. True, Captain Davenport's detection is not always fed by satisfyingly hidden, brilliantly uncovered clues. He relies more on guessing than deduction, a shortcoming that, strictly speaking, makes him only third best after Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot. The mystery here ultimately concerns variations in human behavior, however, not methods of crime. Interesting people studied in depth offer highly dramatic compensation; we come to know Sergeant Waters, for instance, through what are for once coherent and gracefully introduced flashbacks. (p. 21)

Leo Sauvage, "Plays That Got Away," in The New Leader (© 1982 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXV, No. 14, July 12-26, 1982, pp. 21-22.∗


Charles Fuller Drama Analysis