Charles Fuller: In His Own Words
Note: During the historical years of the NEC when Doug Ward was its Artistic Director he nurtured and produced the works of many writers. One of the most successful is Charles Fuller who won the Obie (Off- Broadway) Award in 1981 for Distinguished Playwriting for Zooman and the Sign and the Pulitzer Prize one year later for A Soldier’s Play. Both works were produced by the NEC and both were directed by Douglas Turner Ward.
In the Deepest Part of Sleep
When I left Philadelphia to come here (New York City), it was The NEC that I looked forward to working with. Any struggles I had in improving my work was really to work with the The NEC where I would not be embarrassed if Douglas Turner Ward saw this play. It would be written well enough that he would like it. They were a theatre really devoted to playwrights. Doug had a reputation for nurturing playwrights and working with them. And I was very concerned about getting my work to people who at least had some commitment to playwrights. The first play we did together was In the Deepest Part of Sleep(the 1973/74 Season). This particular play worked on two levels with four people. And so I was concerned with not only how this play moved but that you always had a certain kind of visual image going on in this single house. A situation where you could watch all four people in four separate rooms. Doug helped me by giving me an idea of what I was trying to do, clearing it up for me so that the visual thing I was very much concerned with always happened, as well as the dialogue and the story line that had to go along with all that stuff. So he was really instrumental in giving me a vision of what you could do on stage. The size of it and what it meant. I hadn’t had that before.
Zooman and the Sign
In Philadelphia where I’m from there was a time when 40 or 50 kids a year would be gunned down by other teenagers. So Zooman was really and attempt at looking at the kinds of kids that were involved in those kinds of shootings. I used to work as a Housing Inspector for the city and I was involved in a shooting in the sense that I knew one of the kids who had shot another teenager. And I found that in talking to me right after he was absolutely without guilt or without any sense of conscience about it at all. It was simply a matter of turf and the other kid shouldn’t have been there. It was extraordinary. At that moment I began to feel that there was growing a group of young people in the black community who were diametrically opposed to the attitudes and values of what my generation had grown up with. And that these young people were growing up without any other connection except the street. So I wanted to contrast this kind of character with the family of Reuben and Rachael (two characters in the play) and their closeness and the love that they had. I also wanted this to be the last of my kitchen plays. I wanted to do something that would take my work out of the living room and out of the kitchen and begin to set it in other areas and other kinds of places because I began to think that the house as a place for a play was beginning to strangle black writers. So Zooman and the Sign was my first attempt to get the play out of the kitchen.
I also wanted to talk about the disillusionment of young black people in our society. There is an entire class of young black men in this country who have no connection to religion, culture or the social activities of their own people. They function in a world that is for the most part a jungle. They set the rules and abide by those rules. They have no loyalties to anything but that.
What is interesting about Zooman is that it unfortunately is just as viable today as it was when it was originally produced. And indeed there are more Zoomen on the streets right now than at the time the play was written. There are more young people alienated from what we perceive to be traditional black life. So Zooman was my way of providing a warning. My way of saying “This young man is on his way. This man is here, are we going to deal with him? He belongs to us, so we simply can’t ignore him. This group of young people is related to us. They’re our cousins, our nephews, someone’s son, someone’s grandson; they are someone’s brother and so on. So they are connected to us.”… Now fifty percent of the people in prison are black people and about ninety nine percent of the crimes they commit are against other black people. It’s insane not to be concerned about that. So as I said Zooman was more in the order of a warning that if we don’t do something shortly this young man and his kind are going to overwhelm us and we must do something to make sure that they continue to be a part of our family. Otherwise we will have no control over what they do and how it impacts on us.
The play was done at the NEC; it won an award and so forth. But more important than that is the fact that through reviews, word of mouth or whatever a lot of people heard about it. So that the play wound up being done all over the place, even in the Detroit School System. And it is still the most popular play I have written thus far.
A Soldier’s Play
I guess I should start by saying that I’ve always had this enormous fascination with the black soldier because throughout history he has been the only character who has functioned on equal footing with white people. During the settling of the Old West black soldiers were the police of the area. They fought in the Civil War and when it came time to do equal things only the black soldier had the opportunity to do so. Then when he came back to civilian life he was once again relegated to a subservient role. But after World War Two black soldiers came back and were the first group of blacks who went to college on the GI Bill. So they became the middle class of the 1950s and 60s. What I did with A Soldier’s Play was research the whole period. I wanted to research what blacks had done in the Second World War. Around that same time my best friend the poet and playwright Larry Neal died and as a memorial to Larry I wrote A Soldier’s Play. The play is in a way not just a memorial to my friend but also in a way an attempt on my part to demonstrate that the black soldiers and the black officers were on the leading edge of what was going to change America in the 1950s and 60s. Davenport tells the white captain at the end of the play that you might as well get used to taking orders from black people because things in this country are starting to change. And he is in a position to begin to do that. So A Soldier’s Play was the result of a lot of research.
The Pulitzer Prize
It was done by the NEC with Doug directing a dream cast that has gone on to make names for themselves on stage, on TV and in the movies. During the run one day Leon Denmark (managing director for the NEC) called and said: “Charles, I think you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. I told him to hold off for a minute “Cause if you’re wrong I’d be awfully embarrassed to tell people I won when it just wasn’t so.” But then they announced it and Doug and I shared an interesting moment, because I called him and told him. We were very proud to have done it, to have worked as hard as we did and have the results be something so wonderful and acknowledged in this way. For me that was probably the most extraordinary moment of my relationship with Doug and the company. Now let me add quickly that I have always considered it our prize. That is the NEC and Doug and me and all the actors and everyone else who worked so hard on the production to make it what it was. I wrote the play but they were the ones who took care of the rest of it for me.
The WE Plays
After A Soldier’s Play it was important for me to try something totally new in terms of my own work and try something very different in terms of its complexities. So that’s when I thought I’d tell a story over an extended period of time. Forty years to be exact. And in the process of telling this story introduce characters that you would meet again and again because you would meet them in different plays. Each play, each story would be connected but nevertheless each would stand on its own and yet when you look at the entire work it would just be one story. Sort of like a mosaic. It was very complicated and I didn’t know if it would work but the challenge was in doing it… The movies Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and others have suggested that black people during that period were fools. They could not read, could not write, and could not talk. That they could do nothing but hope and rely on the goodwill of the white people they served. But the truth is quite different and part of the challenge for me was to contrast the nature of the story I’m telling against Birth of a Nation or against any of those stories which have become a part of the American myth and American attitudes in this society. So these facts about ourselves, these truths about black people that were for the most part obscured by Southern and Northern histories are now being overturned. The book Reconstruction by Eric Foner and a variety of other pieces about the life of the slaves are overturning the idea that the slaves were stupid and incompetent. So what I’m doing with the WE Plays is simply taking that history and examining it in realistic terms. It must be understood that we developed a class of people during that time who ran for public office. That they had to have strategists and campaign bosses in order to do so. If slavery prevented us from learning things, how was it possible that directly thereafter we created a class of people who had enough intelligence to start voting and start building political machines? So that was the idea, the challenge and the execution that became four plays collectively called The WE Plays. Individually they were Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic. The NEC did them during the 1988/89 and 1989/90 season with Doug once again directing.
About the NEC and Douglas Turner Ward
Theatre in America is fundamentally a segregated institution. If black people were to rely on American mainstream theatre, we would for the most part never see ourselves in those productions. We would not have any sense of ourselves as people in this country operating and functioning as human beings in the United States because most theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights except for the one or two they deem acceptable to their subscribers. Doug and the NEC for the longest while provided this country with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre.
Douglas Turner Ward is a writer so his commitment was to writers. The NEC besides being many other things was primarily a playwright’s theatre. I mean you can’t ask for more than that. Other theatres commit to different things, subscribers, raising money, their board of directors and all sorts of things. But the NEC under Doug every year opened their season with new plays. Every single year for nearly thirty years. No one else has ever done that. No other theatre I know has had that much commitment to playwrights. That’s an extraordinary thing and Doug ought to be really thanked for that. And certainly as a playwright I thank him all the time.
(Interview taped in 1988 and updated in 2011)