Playwright shares his life's journey

The Daily Pennsylvanian
February 20, 1998

When playwright Charles Fuller went to high school in Philadelphia in the 1950s, the library didn't have any books by African Americans. As a result, Fuller and his best friend decided they would be the ones to fill the shelves.

More than 40 years later, Fuller, now 58 and a successful playwright, has fulfilled that promise.

Fuller came to the Kelly Writers House yesterday to share the journey he took to become a playwright with about 20 students.

The event also featured a screening and discussion of the movie adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Soldier's Play.

Fuller is one in a series of playwrights who will visit the University this semester as part of an African American studies course taught by Professor Nathanial Nesmith.

Fuller told students that he began writing poems to impress girls while he was in high school. That led to a career in writing.

"After a while it wasn't just a hobby," he said. "It became... a life's work."

In 1968, which he was working as a safety inspector for houses, Fuller's career took an unexpected turn when he and his friends opened the Afro-American Arts Theater in Philadelphia. Having a theater -- but no playwrights -- Fuller, the writer of the group, decided to try his hand at writing plays.

The effort paid off.

After the showing of his first play, Fuller was invited to write a full-length play for the 40th anniversary of McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

He wrote the play in seven days, and as Fuller told the students, "I was a playwright."

This first full-length play was followed by many others, including A Soldier's Play, for which Fuller won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Inspired by Fuller's best friend, who passed away in 1982, A Soldier's Play also won the Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award and came very close to being produced on Broadway.

"The play did not go to Broadway because I would not take [a] line out," Fuller said. The line in question was the one that ended the play: "You'll have to get used to Black people being in charge."

According to Fuller, he wrote A Soldier's Play by "taking American literature and turning it upside down." Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd was his basis for the play, which was later made into a movie adaptation entitled A Soldier's Movie.

Both the play and the movie featured then-stage actor Denzel Washington, among others.

Fuller's interest in plays dwindled as his focus switched to movies.

"I always wanted to reach the most people with my work," he explained. "Not enough people go to the theater."

He also noted that films have certain advantages over plays, citing as one example, "You can't have someone ride off into the sunset on a stage."

Upcoming projects for Fuller include producing a movie for the Showtime cable channel. Entitled Love Songs, the movie will consist of three short stories taking place in Philadelphia and will be Fuller's first attempt at producing a movie, rather than just writing it.

Fuller will also be working on an upcoming Disney film, The Slave Dancer, and an MGM movie about the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico City.