The Vintage International version (1992) of James Baldwin’s play Blues for Mister Charlie offers some of Baldwin’s insight in the introduction “Notes for Blues.” Baldwin actually begins by expressing his general and genuine disdain for the American Theatre. He states, “I am not convinced that it is a Theatre; it seems to me a series, merely, of commercial speculations, stale, repetitious, and timid” (xiii). Baldwin goes on to explain that Emmett Till’s murder became the initial inspiration for his work with Blues for Mister Charlie. Baldwin, too, recounts how the death of his close friend, Medgar Evans, was in fact the tipping point to get his ideas in script form. At the conclusion of “Notes,” Baldwin writes: “When [Medgar Evans] died, something entered into me which I cannot describe, but it was then that I resolved that nothing under heaven would prevent me from getting this play done” (xv). In typical and true Baldwin form, he writes because he feels an urgency. Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie is, sadly, a timeless American tale. A white man kills an innocent black boy and then walks free. Baldwin finished this play in 1964, but it speaks to 2016 just as easily.
Blues for Mister Charlie is a play in three Acts. The set design is particularly important to Baldwin’s work. He presents two worlds, WHITETOWN and BLACKTOWN, which are separate, but sort of co-exist in Plaguetown, U.S.A. (xv), a pseudonym for perhaps (or, maybe, essentially) any city in America. Then, there’s the church and the courtroom, which are directly across from one another and divided by an aisle that, too, divides the whites from the blacks. Baldwin’s stage screams of a segregated world. It’s not minimalistic by any means. It’s a busy stage, done intentionally to note the confusion, the traffic, and the real racial collisions within America. The stage design accentuates the growing intensity between the whites and blacks especially in the last Act. While various individuals take the stand to share what they know about Lyle Britten’s guilt or innocence in regards to the death of Richard Henry, a young black male, the WHITETOWN and the BLACKTOWN make comments, almost as if it is a play-by-play at a sporting event. In one heated moment after the State asks Meridian Henry, the deceased’s father, about his personal life, the opposing thoughts of the two worlds shout at one another:
THE STATE: You have been celibate since the death of your wife?
BLACKTOWN: He never said he was a monk, you jive mother!
WHITETOWN: Make him tell us all about it. All about it.
MERIDIAN: Celibate? How does my celibacy concern you?
THE STATE: Your Honor, will you instruct the witness that he is on the witness stand, not I, and that he must answer the questions put to him! (pg. 103)
This commentary continues through the duration of the trial, which finds Lyle Britten innocent. What’s even more frustrating is that the trial becomes not about the murderous act of a white man, but the reputation of the dead, black boy. It’s all a setup. The reader (and the audience) knows that Lyle Britten will be found innocent. Baldwin was purposeful with his intent here and blatant with his message: even a dead, black boy is the guilty one, and both the BLACKTOWN and the WHITETOWN know this.
Parnell James, the loud and drunk editor of the local paper, is perhaps the most intriguing character. Parnell is white, but is close with both the accused and the victim. He grew up with Lyle Britten, the murderer, and is, too, close with Meridian Henry, the victim’s father. Throughout the play Parnell interacts with both families and towns, and it’s never absolutely clear who he truly sides with. Parnell is at the center of this collision. How can he choose one to fully support? He has to, and yet he struggles to do so. Again, Baldwin is not coy or shy with Parnell’s character. Parnell James represents many Americans—black and white—who find themselves at this crossroads. In the end, after Parnell finally gets the brutal truth from Lyle, he decides to follow Juanita, from the BLACKTOWN, to a Civil Rights march. Parnell’s not ready to lead this change, he’s just a follower, but he’s finally settled on which direction to take. Perhaps this is Baldwin’s subtle message to white America: you can only waver until you cannot.
Although this is a play, Blues for Mister Charlie feels like Baldwin’s prose. There are glimpses of his classic fictional characters in this play, which compliments his full work, I think. Baldwin was dedicated to his craft, his art, and his reason for writing. While I read this play, I constantly found myself thinking about John Grimes, David and Giovanni, Alfonso, Rufus Scott, even Sonny from his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Baldwin knew the core of his characters, just as he knew the core of why he wrote. The final line of Baldwin’s introduction in “Notes for Blues” reads: “we are walking in terrible darkness here, and this is one man’s attempt to bear witness to the reality and the power of light” (xv). No finer words, I think, represent how important this play is today to our very divided and wavering America.