Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Fuller takes his civil-rights focus to a new genre

You'll have to get used to Black people being in charge. - Charles Fuller, A Soldier's PlayCharles Fuller screws up his face in mock confusion, then laughs.

Charles Fuller at home in Fairmount with his wife, filmmaker Claire Prieto-Fuller. He says that "Snatch" continues his lifelong effort to contribute to the civil-rights movement through his art.
Charles Fuller at home in Fairmount with his wife, filmmaker Claire Prieto-Fuller. He says that "Snatch" continues his lifelong effort to contribute to the civil-rights movement through his art.Read moreSHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer

You'll have to get used to Black people being in charge.

- Charles Fuller, A Soldier's Play
Charles Fuller screws up his face in mock confusion, then laughs.

The eminent Philadelphia playwright, who this month published his novel, Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York, is trying to picture what it means to live in a post-racial America.

"When [Barack] Obama was campaigning [for the White House], I kept hearing that we are entering a post-racial America," says Fuller, whose tense, Pulitzer-Prize winning 1981 World War II-era murder mystery, A Soldier's Play, mounted a stunning critique of America's legacy of racism.

"Well, that's . . . absurd," he says, laughing. "What does that mean, anyway?"

Fuller, 70, grew up in North Philadelphia and graduated from Roman Catholic High School and LaSalle University. On a bright afternoon, he is relaxing on a cream-colored couch in the high-rise Fairmount apartment he shares with his wife, filmmaker Claire Prieto-Fuller. A slim, compact man, he sports closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a matching beard.

Softspoken and eloquent, he fields questions at a methodical pace. And he's funny.

"It's comfortable to feel that the [civil rights] work that went on in the 1960s has been completed. . . . We Americans are remarkable. . . . We like things to be over with," he says, letting out one of many chortles.

Equality, Fuller says, is a promise, a process, which continues but is far from complete. He says Snatch and the dozens of plays that preceded it are part of a lifelong quest to contribute as an artist to the civil rights movement.

A rousing historical adventure for kids in fifth through ninth grades, Snatch tells the story of Charles and David, two prepubescent African American brothers in antebellum New York who help a runaway slave from the South evade authorities. The first in a planned trilogy, Snatch is an exuberant throwback to Mark Twain and Charles Dickens' best work.

In a move he says surprised his colleagues, Fuller self-published the novel so he could control its distribution.

"We wanted to make sure to get it into the community rather than rely on the corporate slowness, which would kill it," he says.

Fuller's decision isn't all that shocking, says Publishers Weekly features editor Andrew R. Albanese. Self-publishing has exploded, he says. According to the publishing information agency RR Bowker, 764,448 titles were released by self-publishers and micro-niche publishers in 2009, compared to 289,729 in 2008.

And it's a trend not limited to newbie authors who can't find a publisher. Mid-level and A-list authors are part of the trend. "It's something that is being examined more and more by popular authors," Albanese says. Mystery writer J.A. Konrath and young-adult author Cory Doctorow both are putting out new books on their own, he adds.

Fuller explains that his primary goal isn't necessarily to place Snatch in major retailers, but to have library systems and public schools adopt the book. He says he plans to present it later this month at the annual meeting of the American Library Association in Washington, D.C.

Fuller commissioned educator and author Marguerite Tiggs Birt to write a teacher's guide.

"The guide has lesson plans in three subjects - language arts, social studies and math," Birt says from her home in Savannah, Ga. Birt, 71, who is Fuller's second cousin, taught college-level education courses and grade school until her retirement in 2005.

She said she was impressed by the extensive historical research that went into Snatch and by its complex, vivid characterizations.

Nilgun Anadolu-Okur, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University, says Fuller's commitment to creating well-rounded characters is itself a political statement, since racism is perpetuated through stereotyping.

"Fuller's career has been a struggle for the eradication of stereotypes," says the author of Contemporary African American Theater: Afrocentricity in the Works of Larry Neal, Amiri Baraka, and Charles Fuller. "He presents better, more complete, and more realistic images of African Americans."

Anadolu-Okur says Fuller avoids becoming a mere propagandist because he sets his stories in concrete historical contexts. And, she adds, Fuller never narrows his scope to political issues that are of interest only to the black community.

"I see his plays as having a universal character . . . he is not doing propaganda, he's addressing issues like justice and equality."

Fuller's commitment to universal issues also means he's not afraid to criticize assumptions shared by the African American community, says Anadolu-Okur.

Fuller says that training a critical lens on your peers is seldom comfortable.

"What we forget most often is that the hardest thing to do is to go against the feelings and sensibilities of your friends and, in a sense, your ethnic group," he says. "To do so is one of the most heroic things you can do, and sadly we don't seem to do that anymore."

Anadolu-Okur says Fuller strives to balance two powerful ethical concerns. First, in plays such as A Soldier's Play and Zooman and the Sign, he explores and exposes how social institutions can perpetuate racism and instill a sense of helplessness in African Americans. At the same time, the playwright insists that every individual seek "self-improvement, self-determination, and self-responsibility," regardless of ethnicity.

"Drama is the most social of the arts," Anadolu-Okur says, "and for Fuller, its function is social healing."

Fuller says the only way to achieve equality is knowlege - especially a firm grasp of our own history.

"We don't like history much," he says with a chortle. "How can you sell democracy [abroad] if you don't know anything about it?"

Only through a deeper understanding of how our society has evolved can we begin to envision ways to change it for the better, Fuller says.

"The first thing we must understand is that issues such as gay rights and women's rights" are not matters that concern only small, marginal groups.

"All of us should be interested in resolving them. If we don't, the whole democracy is diminished."