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Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller dies at 83

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Charles Fuller died on Monday in Toronto. He was 83. Fuller was best known for "A Soldier's Play," which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film, "A Soldier's Story." Jeff Lunden has this remembrance.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Despite winning a Pulitzer in 1982, "A Soldier's Play," which was presented successfully off-Broadway, didn't make it to Broadway until 2020. Charles Fuller attended the opening night, as he told NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHARLES FULLER: It was wonderful to see on Broadway. But you got to admit that it took a long time.

LUNDEN: Kenny Leon directed the Tony Award-winning revival just before the pandemic.

KENNY LEON: I think it's a great play, you know. It's a well-structured play.

LUNDEN: The play is set in a Black barracks on an Army base in Louisiana in 1944. On the surface, it's a whodunit. A sergeant is mysteriously murdered. But underneath, it's a complex look at race and power in America. We learn in flashbacks that the sergeant has bullied his squad. He's a self-loathing Black man who makes a show of being deferential to the white officers. But in the end, Fuller said to NPR in 2008, even the sergeant realizes that everything he's done adds up to nothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FULLER: I don't know of any character that I can think of in Black literature that has created that kind of impact and that kind of animosity.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "A SOLDIER'S PLAY")

DAVID ALAN GRIER: (As Sergeant Vernon C. Waters) I'm going outside to wait for you, geechy. And when you come out, I'm going to whip your Black, Southern a** - let the whole company watch, too. You need to learn respect - how to talk to your betters.

LUNDEN: That's David Alan Grier, who won a Tony playing the sergeant and had a small role in the film. Charles Fuller was born in Philadelphia and interrupted his college education with a stint in the Army. In 1967, he co-founded Afro-American Arts Theater in his hometown. And since there were no playwrights on their roster, Fuller picked up the pen. From the start, race was his frequent subject. One of his first plays was an interracial drama called "The Perfect Party." In the 1970s, Fuller moved to New York, where he became a member of the Negro Ensemble Company. It produced "The Brownsville Raid" about a Black Army squadron getting court-martialed for inciting a riot and "Zooman And The Sign" about a father's search for his daughter's killer. But his biggest hit by far was "A Soldier's Play." Fuller later moved to Toronto, where he continued to write until his death. In December, that pre-pandemic production of "A Soldier's Play" begins a national tour. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Lunden
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.