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Charles H. Fuller Jr., whose ‘A Soldier’s Play’ won the Pulitzer Prize, was memorialized by a city that admired him

Philadelphia Inquirer 11/7/2022 Valerie Russ, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Perhaps it was fitting that the memorial service for the playwright Charles H. Fuller Jr. was held Saturday in the dimly lit sanctuary at the Church of the Advocate.

The 135-year-old Gothic Revival church is a place of art, protest and sacredness.

Both the historic church, and Fuller’s work — he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play — are deeply rooted in North Philadelphia.

Mr. Fuller, 83, died Oct. 3 in Toronto, where he and his second wife, Claire Prieto-Fuller, a documentary filmmaker, lived in recent years.

Mr. Fuller grew up in the James Weldon Johnson Homes, a public housing project at 25th and Norris Streets. He often said in interviews that he drew upon the conflict, poverty and violence he saw while living in the projects to write his plays.

He also drew from his later experiences serving in a peacetime Army in Japan and Korea.

The George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate, at 1801 W. Diamond St., was a major center for civil rights activism in the 1960s and ‘70s, while the Rev. Paul Washington was rector.

The church hosted a National Conference of Black Power in 1968, a Black Panther conference in 1970, and, in defiance of the Episcopal Church, Washington permitted the first 11 women to be ordained as priests there in 1974.

About 150 people attended Saturday’s memorial service, where they listened to reflections, songs and poems surrounded by the large, fiery Black protest murals, painted in the 1970s by artists Richard Watson and Walter Edmonds, that adorn the sanctuary walls.

Mr. Fuller’s son David I. said of his father: “He was a giant. He was strong, even close to the end of his life.

“And he loved his family. He loved my mother, who he was married to for 44 years, and he loved Claire, who he was married to for the last 14 years. He was deeply loved, and that was a blessing.”

Mr. Fuller married his first wife, Miriam Nesbitt Fuller in 1962. The couple raised two sons, first in Yorktown, and later in Northeast Philadelphia. Miriam Fuller died in 2006, and Mr. Fuller’s older son, Charles Fuller III, died in 2013.

When he married Claire Prieto, the couple lived in Center City, before they moved to Canada, her home country.

Mr. Fuller began writing plays in the 1960s when the Black Arts movement was in full force. At that time, many Black authors wrote plays dealing with racism and confrontations between white and Black people.

But Mr. Fuller’s plays sometimes drew criticism from other Black playwrights. His plays explored the violence and class warfare between Black people. But he also examined the poverty, racism and social ills that led to those intra-racial conflicts.

For example, his 1980 play, Zooman and the Sign, depicted the rage of a Black father after his daughter, about 11 or 12, is killed by a stray bullet while she was standing on her front porch. A neighborhood teen ruffian, known as Zooman, is suspected.

However, when none of his neighbors is willing to talk to police, the father puts up a sign condemning them as cowards.

The Off-Broadway play won an Obie Award in 1981. A young Giancarlo Esposito had the lead role as Zooman.

Mr. Fuller also won a Tony Award in 2020 for best revival of a play, when A Soldier’s Play finally made it to Broadway that year, nearly 40 years after the Negro Ensemble Company premiered it Off-Broadway in 1981. The play is coming to the Kimmel Center on tour in January.

That original cast included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in supporting roles. Adolph Caesar starred as a sergeant in a segregated Army in 1944, who was murdered at the Louisiana Army base.

The play was later adapted into a 1984 film that was retitled A Soldier’s Story. It earned three Oscar nominations, including a best screenplay nod for Mr. Fuller.

He joined the Army in 1959, after two years of studies at Villanova University. He also studied at La Salle University after his military service.

In 1968, he and a group of friends founded the Afro-American Arts Theater in Philadelphia. Mr. Fuller, who once worked as a city housing inspector, would write plays at night for the theater group.

Obituary: Charles H. Fuller Jr., Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Philadelphia icon, has died at 83

Among those attending the Saturday service were the author and playwright Lorene Cary, who founded Art Sanctuary, a community-oriented arts collective, and Temple University professor Molefi Kete Asante.

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The Rev. Rayford E. Emmons, an assistant pastor at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mount Airy, said in an interview that he had known Mr. Fuller’s family for many years.

“The whole family was brilliant,” Emmons said. “He had two nieces and a nephew, and all three were doctors.

“I think it was something in the way [Mr. Fuller’s] parents brought them up. They taught them that whatever gifts God has given you, you owe it to everybody else to share them. They had a philosophy: ‘Where can I use my gifts to best serve the community?‘”

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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