note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Richard Pacheo
“Blues for Mister Charlie” is James Baldwin's second play, a tragedy in three acts. It was first produced and published in 1964. It is dedicated to the memory of Medgar Evers, and his widow and his children, and to the memory of the dead children of Birmingham.The play is loosely based on the Emmett Till murder that occurred in Money, Mississippi, before the Civil Rights Movement began.
It opens up with Reverend Meridian Henry coaching the Negro students through their lines. They are interrupted by Parnell Jones who brings them the news that Lyle Britten will be arrested for the murder of Richard Henry. For where once a white storekeeper could have shot a "boy" like Richard Henry with impunity, times have changed. And centuries of brutality and fear, patronage and contempt, are about to erupt in a moment of truth as devastating as a shotgun blast.
Intended as a companion piece for the current production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” it was intended as a staged reading and the actors, enthused by the material learned their lines. Yet the element of staged readings still lingers over the production in its sparse setting. The action shifts back and forth between past and present. The structure is loose and makes valid points as if they were clichés. What it has in abundance thought is raw energy and fierce passion, a call to arms.
The play has many rants and diatribe not as well written as “To Kill A Mockingbird” the companion play at Trinity. It tells pretty much the same story without as many twists and turns. Yet it tackles racism as it once existed in this country with relentless zest and conviction.
There are some strong moments in it. Jude Sandy is Meridian Henry, an impassioned preacher whose son is shot for flirting with a white storekeeper at least that is what the story is. Sandy is focused and powerful at many times during the production with an honest and passionate performance.
His son Richard Henry played by David Samuel has returned to his hometown after spending time up north and hitting some bad times, things like drug addiction. Now, back in his hometown, he seethes with rage and resentment and is angered by the racism which surrounds him in his hometown. It makes him rebellious to the customary behavior in the town, the rampant racism which is everywhere. Samuel is a solid presence. He is vibrant and determined in the role, full of raw passion and energy.
The murderer is the bigoted Lyle Henry played by Mauro Hantman, is the husband of the shopkeeper and manages to slyly cover up his hatred and his bigotry in particular for Richard whom he despises. Hantman is on the mark as the bigoted man who oozes a slippery bigotry which he intends and does in fact cover it up.
Stephen Thorne is the white liberal newspaperman with integrity and dares to speak out against the bigotry and defend the blacks from the over racism. He is defensive of Meridian and Richard and it tests their friendship. Throne is sincere and poised in the role, utterly convincing. Friday, Alexis Green doubled as Grandma Henry and Richard's friend Lorenzo, as she covered, script in hand, for an ailing Ashley Mitchell.
Director Brian McEleny used the same cast as “Mockingbird” and the same sparse set of a classroom setting and disperses the cast throughout the house as he does in that play. It is not as tight as “Mockingbird” and originally meant to be a staged reading but the actor’s enthusiasm propelled them to learn lines.
Much of the play is seen as flashback with Richard Henry already dead as the play opens. Baldwin’s characters seem more like entrenched stereotypes who are so antithetical that what divides them seems totally unbridgeable.
The ending is direct and brutal, not at all subtle.