Fuller reads from new play

Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Fuller previewed his new work 'Cuba' at a reading last night.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
April 16, 2002

Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning play A Soldier's Play and 1980 Obie-winner The Zooman and the Sign are available to the general public at libraries and bookstores nationwide. But only a select few, including those who attended last night's reading at the Kelly Writers House, have had the rare opportunity to hear his most recent and still incomplete play Cuba.

Over 100 Penn students, faculty and community members sat in on a reservations-only reading by the acclaimed playwright last night at the Writers House as part of the Writers House Fellows series.

Students in the Writers House Fellows program have been intensely studying Fuller's work, and those in the Literature in the Community seminar -- sponsored by the Art Sanctuary's citywide reading project -- have been teaching it to groups in North Philadelphia for the past six weeks.

Fuller's visit to campus marked the culmination of these efforts and the Philadelphia native spent three hours with the two classes yesterday afternoon, engaging in a dialogue about writing and black literature.

"The students are still buzzing from this afternoon's seminar," English Professor and Writers House Faculty Director Al Filreis said last night.

Members of the audience expressed similar excitement over the opportunity to hear Fuller's newest work, which is a combination of a political commentary, a love story, an account of the experiences of blacks in America and, as Fuller described it, "a reflection on what we don't learn from history."

Set in 1898, the play tells of the experiences of black soldiers who will fight in Cuba after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine battleship.

Audience members said they felt fortunate to hear the play in its unfinished state.

"I feel like we just heard the beginnings and the draft of what's going to be a major piece of theater, incredibly powerful even in its rudimentary form," said Hannah Sassaman, a Writers House resident intern who graduated from the College last year and is currently taking the Writers House Fellows course.

"It's really neat to see something in the early stages," added College sophomore Molly Lazer, who said she is excited to see how the play will change and develop until it reaches its final form.

Incorporated into Fuller's reading were splices of songs that corresponded to the plot of the play.

"It is a play with music -- not a lot of music, but music nonetheless," Fuller said, adding that he hoped this element would attract a wider audience for the play.

Audience members said that this helped them understand the development of the story.

"I thought it was interesting and necessary to convey parts of the story," Sassaman said, adding that Fuller's use of emotions was more innovative than his utilization of parts of songs.

"I think that he just took concepts of character and narrative and completely reformed them on an emotional rather than rational mount, which is much more honest when you're presenting them to a theater audience," she said.

Some other audience members said they were glad that Fuller answered questions and spoke on the current state of playwriting in the black community.

"I like what he had to say about the purpose of theater," Lazer said.

Fuller said that his goal is to reach a wide range of people within the community.

"Anything that gets people out of their houses is a good thing," he said. "Our job is to suggest to you what is now, what is coming and what can change the world."

Fuller also said that many contemporary playwrights are not succeeding in attracting large audiences.

"We haven't been able to capture the heart of the community. Many of us bought into the idea that theater was only for a handful of people," he said, adding that theaters are suffering economically as a result.

Despite this, he said it is important to use the art of playwriting to convey a message to the general public.

In Cuba, Fuller writes about some of the ways America exploits its power, and he said during the question-and-answer segment that followed the reading that the moral of his play applies to how America has been acting in recent months.

"It's important to remember that we're a country that has real nasty things going on," Fuller said.

A conversation with Fuller will be held this morning at the Writers House and will be simulcast over the Internet through the Writers House Web site. Fuller will also be speaking at the Church of the Advocate today at 4:30 p.m.