By Fern Gillespie
The sudden death of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Playwright and Screenwriter Charles Fuller (March 5, 1939–October 3, 2022) stunned the theater and film world. A pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s Black Arts movement, Fuller was renowned for his powerful, poignant A Soldier’s Play and film A Soldier’s Story. This World War II era drama about Black soldiers in a US military camp had riveting performances by Adolph Caesar and Denzel Washington. However, it wasn’t until 2020 that A Soldier’s Play marched onto Broadway—almost 40 years after its off-Broadway premiere at the Negro Ensemble Company.
Between 2020 and 2022, Black playwright legends like Fuller, Alice Childress, and Adrienne Kennedy have had their plays produced on Broadway’s “Great White Way” for the first time.
Although, Fuller’s plays like A Soldier’s Play, Brownsville Raid, and 1980 Obie winner Zooman and the Sign are remembered as part of the Negro Ensemble Company, his early work was produced by legendary Producer and Director Woodie King, considered the “King of Black Theatre.”
In 1969, King produced Fuller’s first New York off-Broadway play, The Perfect Party with the theme of interracial marriage. “I loved his work. When I moved to New Federal Theatre, I produced Fuller’s In My Many Names and Days in 1972 and then in 1973, I produced his play The Candidate, directed by Harold Dewindt, who was also an actor and model,” Woodie King told me.
Fuller’s In My Many Names and Days, was directed by Irving Vincent and Larry Neal, a founder of the Black Arts movement. The play was about Black families. “Mary Alice was the mother in it. Laurence Fishburne, who was in it, was nine years old when I produced that play,” recalled King. “So, you know it was a long time ago!”
The 1960s and 1970s were a new political and cultural era in Black theater and audiences filled Fuller’s shows at New Federal Theatre. “They were hits. Great reviews and awards. That’s the only thing you can go by. The audience was totally different back then. They didn’t have many choices,” said King. “There was not a lot of theater in the sixties for Black people. Both young and old Black audiences attended it. And white people attended because they had not seen Black stuff by Black writers with Black actors and directors.”
In June 1981, Denzel Washington won theatrical acclaim at New Federal Theatre as Malcolm X in Laurence Holder’s When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, produced by Woodie King. Within months, in December 1981, he was on the stage at the Negro Ensemble Company in A Soldier’s Play, which earned Fuller the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
“The Negro Ensemble Company had a wonderful production of A Soldier’s Play. Douglas Turner Ward didthe hell out of it! He directed it so well,” recalled King. “The Negro Ensemble Company always had a great cast. Because they had that ensemble—Denzel Washington, Eugene Lee, Samuel Jackson, Adolph Caesar—it was magnificent!”
Caesar was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the 1984 film adaptation, A Soldier’s Story, which co-starred David Alan Grier, Robert Townsend, Howard Rollins, and Art Evans. The film had Larry Riley and Denzel Washington reprising their Negro Ensemble Company roles. Fuller himself wrote the screen adaptation. Nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, and a Writers Guild Award of America, the screenplay won an Edgar Award. When A Soldier’s Play finally hit Broadway in 2020, it starred Blair Underwood and David Allen Grier, who earned a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play, and won the Tony for Best Revival. A Soldier’s Play is now on a national tour produced by Roundabout Theatre starring Norm Lewis and directed by Kenny Leon, who directed the Broadway revival.
There is an Alice Childress revival going on. She’s often acknowledged as the only 20th-century African American woman to have written, produced, and published plays for four decades. Her literary work spanned over 40 years and earned her a Pulitzer Prize nomination for her novel A Short Walk. Her novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich became a 1978 movie starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. Although the prolific writer died in 1994, her first play to hit the Broadway stage was Trouble in Mind in 2021 and earned four Tony Award nominations. Ironically, the play, about a Black actress having trouble in a Broadway play, was produced off-Broadway in the 1950s. At the time, Broadway producers wanted Childress to soften the racism if it was to be on Broadway. “I feel that she was denied her due by her producers. Since that time, there has been momentum and a karmic debt due her to get her play on Broadway,” Chuck Cooper, a Trouble in Mind co-star and Tony nominee, told Broadwayworld.com.
During 2022, local theaters presented Childress’ productions to critical acclaim. Wedding Band at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience won raves. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey produced her superb one-act plays Florence and Mojo. Obie Award winner Brandon J. Dirden directed his wife, actress Crystal Dickinson, in Two River Theatre’s production of Wine in the Wilderness. Audiences trekked from Brooklyn to Red Bank, New Jersey to see it.
At age 91, Playwright and Scholar Adrienne Kennedy makes her Broadway debut at the newly-christened James Earl Jones Theatre with her drama Ohio State Murders in previews now and opening on December 8. The New York Times called her “One of the finest living American playwrights.” An Obie Lifetime Achievement Award winner and a member of the Theater Hall of Fame, Kennedy received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy of Arts and Letters earlier this year. Only four other dramatists have won the Gold Medal: Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and Arthur Miller. Kennedy has contributed to American theater for over 60 years and is best known for her plays such as Funnyhouse of a Negro (Obie Award), June and Jean in Concert (Obie Award), and Sleep Deprivation Chamber co-authored with her son, Adam Kennedy (Obie Award).
Ohio State Murders, directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon, stars six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald as a writer who returns to her alma mater and is confronted with a dark mystery. “I am so thrilled,” announced Kennedy. “It’s only taken me 65 years to make it to Broadway!”