Blues for Mister Charlie
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
June 30, 2011
We’ve all seen our share of courtroom drama, perhaps enough to forget what justice is and what it took to win it. To jog your memory, see New Haarlem Arts Theatre’s production of Blues for Mister Charlie. This play was on Broadway in 1964, and evokes the landmark Civil Rights Movement case of Emmett Till: black youth supposedly says something to white woman, black youth is found dead, white male suspect is found not guilty by all-white jury, white suspect later brags about beating the rap. But there’s a lot more going on.
Richard Henry is the son of the African American minister in a small Southern town. His father sent him to live in New York, which proved to be full of jazz music, eager white women, and dope. Richard’s horizons were broadened, then he was busted and sent to rehab, then finally back to the South. James Baldwin’s characteristic non-linear writing style shows us a church funeral for a lynching victim, then several scenes of Richard speaking his mind in a way that antagonizes the local white people. These two powerful themes alternate until it becomes clear that Richard was the victim. His love interest, Juanita, and a sympathetic but not-tough-enough white liberal named Parnell are the most outraged. Act Two consists of the trial, segregated as regards seating arrangements as well as versions of the truth. Witnesses on the stand have flashbacks to the night of Richard’s murder. It is almost humorous how feebly the defendant and his white attorney and church group push their case. I felt punched in the stomach just thinking of the power these people held. By the way, this show artfully uses just about every form of violence: there are gunshots, some fighting, and much degrading use of the “n” word.
This play holds timeless lessons. Parnell, who looks a bit like Colonel Sanders, is somewhat trusted by the black community but is afraid to lose his friends on the white side of town. If he had been bolder earlier on, he might have saved a life. It’s said of Lyle, the killer, “he doesn’t have anything against colored people, he just thinks they’re not human.” Indeed, many characters lash out with savagery to hold onto a superiority that is only in their heads. As for Juanita, she’s been to jail (for non-violent protest) and has had sex before marriage (with someone she loves) so the racists suggest her testimony is of no importance. Local bartender Papa D had even helped cover up previous murders but finds the courage to speak out at this trial. Fortunately there is always New York, a place where people like Richard could be themselves and where this story could attract attention on Broadway.
Eugene Nesmith’s direction brings a lot of anger to the stage and gets the audience angry too, while at the same time steering the story towards a more hopeful future. Heather Wolensky’s set has several platforms and projection screens to evoke the many locations in the play. Mary Myers’s costumes do a good job of bringing out the dignity of the blacks and showing the whites as somewhat devolved. Also, whoever did the hokey white '50s hairstyles deserves some credit. The impressive ensemble of twenty actors supports stand-out performances from Reginald L. Wilson (Richard), Juanita (Franceli Chapman), Stephen Macari (Lyle), Dennis Jordan (Parnell), Kelvin Hale (Papa D), and Earl Griffin (Richard's father).