Blues for Mister Charlie: Light from Terrible Darkness

Blues for Mister Charlie is an angry play from an angry time. The “Mister Charlie” of the title is a euphemism for “cracker,” a pejorative racial epithet for white people that has etymological roots in the slave driver of the antebellum South who literally cracked a whip.

Trinity Rep deserves enormous credit for putting on this rarely performed play, but fully appreciating it requires a substantial discussion of historical background well beyond that ordinarily encountered in a theater review. The playwright, James Baldwin, was not just a writer, but was a public intellectual directly and extensively engaged in the politics of the civil rights movement at a critical juncture, and his continuing influence remains profound long after his death in 1987. A protégé of Richard Wright and a mentor to Toni Morrison, Baldwin earned a place in the generational pantheon of African-American writers.

The play is based “very distantly indeed” on Emmet Till, a black 14 year-old from urban Chicago, who was murdered in 1955 while visiting his uncle, a preacher, in rural Mississippi. He was accused of “insulting” a 21-year-old white woman working as a storekeeper. Shortly after this incident, the woman’s husband and his half-brother, possibly accompanied by a third man who may have been a black accomplice, went to Till’s relatives’ home, abducted him, and drove him to various locations where they tortured him, shot him dead and then dumped the body in the river.

Racially motivated killings of this kind, intended by racists to protect the honor of white women from sexually aggressive black men, had mostly succumbed to the rule of law after the 1930s, and such an occurrence in the mid-1950s at the height of the civil rights movement was genuinely appalling. His mother in Chicago insisted on an open-casket funeral and encouraged black-oriented newspapers to publish photographs of the badly mutilated body, showing that Till had been shot in the head and left with one eye out of its socket. The killers were tried but found not guilty of the murder by the Mississippi court, after which – protected by the constitutional “double jeopardy” guarantee against being tried twice for the same offense – they bragged about their culpability in a magazine interview.

The Till case brought into national prominence Medgar Evers as a civil rights activist. After enlisting in the Army in his late teens during World War II, serving for two years in European combat and rising to the rank of sergeant, Evers completed his bachelor’s degree in 1952. Fresh out of college, Evers applied to law school at the University of Mississippi and was summarily rejected because he was black. A few months before the Till murder, the NAACP appointed the 29-year-old Evers as field secretary for Mississippi, causing the paths of the two to intersect although, of course, they would never meet. In the three days between Till’s kidnapping and the discovery of the body, Evers organized searches and even disguised himself as an itinerant sharecropper, a very risky endeavor. When the murder became known, Evers was instrumental in turning it into a national cause célèbre that shocked both blacks and whites with its anachronistic brutality.

Events came full circle in 1963 when Medgar Evers, who had survived monthly attempts on his life including firebombing and attack by moving vehicle, was assassinated at age 37 with a shot from a World War I military rifle in the driveway of his own home. Evers became one of the most well-known martyrs of the civil rights movement, memorialized in books, films, songs, and plays. The murders of Till and Evers, although in very different circumstances eight years apart, came to be seen as eerily connected, interpreting Till’s death as an omen of Evers’. Phil Ochs’ contemporaneous folk song “Too Many Martyrs” made the point explicitly: “His name was Medgar Evers and he walked his road alone/Like Emmett Till and thousands more whose names we’ll never know.” Only a few weeks after Evers’ assassination, at the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Bob Dylan performed his newly composed song “Only a Pawn in Their Game” about Evers – who is mentioned by name in the first and last stanzas – and the poor white men who shot him being themselves victims of exploitation by a society that encourages their race hatred:

“The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid/And the marshals and cops get the same/But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool/He’s taught in his school/From the start by the rule/That the laws are with him/To protect his white skin/To keep up his hate/So he never thinks straight/’Bout the shape that he’s in/But it ain’t him to blame/He’s only a pawn in their game.”

James Baldwin was never accepted within the mainstream civil rights movement: his homosexuality alone compelled the withdrawal of his invitation to speak at the March on Washington, and in a movement led by Protestant ministers he was a religious skeptic who saw Christianity as part of the problem. He had been a successful essayist and novelist for a decade, but he was catapulted into a role as the leading black writer and spokesman for the civil rights movement by essays collected under the title The Fire Next Time, originating in The New Yorker in November 1962 and expanded to book-length shortly afterward. The first essay, “My Dungeon Shook – Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” took the form of advice to his 14-year-old nephew about the dangers of growing up as a black man in America. (This essay directly inspired Between the World and Me, a follow-on essay over 50 years later by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of advice to his 15-year-old son that won the 2015 National Book Award.) That both Emmet Till and Baldwin’s nephew were 14 years old was intended as a deliberate and obvious resonance.

Baldwin was approached by then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, to arrange a meeting with leaders of the civil rights movement that took place in May 1963. In his role as attorney general, Bobby Kennedy was the government official principally responsible for enforcing federal laws and court rulings that should have reined in states from practicing racial discrimination. The meeting was acrimonious because the civil rights leadership was shocked by Kennedy’s ignorance of the realities of the situation. (One comment that convinced the civil rights leaders that Kennedy was out of touch was his prediction that the United States could elect a black president in 40 years, which they found ridiculous; it actually took 45 years, but he turned out to be correct.) Kennedy immediately ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to place under surveillance Baldwin and Clarence B. Jones, the speechwriter and lawyer representing Martin Luther King, Jr., who had attended the meeting. Kennedy’s staff, and perhaps Kennedy himself, leaked a one-sided version of the “off the record” meeting to The New York Times, triggering a vicious exchange of blame in the press. Baldwin’s homosexuality was an open secret, certainly since the publication of his second novel in 1956 that leaves little room for doubt, and this led to Hoover describing him to the attorney general as a “pervert” and Kennedy’s staff making fun of Baldwin behind his back by referring to him privately as “Martin Luther Queen.”

Regardless of Bobby Kennedy’s reaction at the meeting, it does seem to have made him aware that at least he did not understand the “Negro problem” as well as he thought he did, and he became more attuned to its political implications. Bobby Kennedy was the only adviser in the inner circle of President John Kennedy who supported giving the landmark civil rights speech on the evening of June 11, about three weeks after the meeting with Baldwin, where the president defended his use of federal troops to protect black students admitted to the University of Alabama under court order and proposed legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting racial segregation in commercial facilities such as public transportation and public restrooms. The next morning after the president’s speech, June 12, Medgar Evers was shot to death in his driveway.

Which, finally, brings us to the play Blues for Mister Charlie. In his prefatory notes to the script, part of which were read from the Trinity stage as an introduction before the play, Baldwin explains why the work is dedicated to his assassinated friend:

“I once took a short trip with Medgar Evers to the back-woods of Mississippi. He was investigating the murder of a Negro man by a white storekeeper that had taken place months before. Many people talked to Medgar that night, in dark cabins, with their lights out, in whispers; and we had been followed for many miles out of Jackson, Mississippi, not by a lunatic with a gun, but by state troopers. I will never forget that night, as I will never forget Medgar – who took me to the plane the next day. When he died, something entered into me that I cannot describe, but it was then that I resolved that nothing under heaven would prevent me from getting this play done. 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.”

Trinity deliberately chose Blues in juxtaposition to their concurrent production of To Kill a Mockingbird sharing the same cast and set. As noted in that review, Trinity Artistic Director Curt Columbus is unambiguous about his reasoning: “…Mockingbird tells the story of race in America from a protected, culturally white point of view. And that is why we are producing Blues for Mister Charlie as a companion piece.”

Blues is set in a fictional Deep South rural region segregated along racial lines into “Whitetown” and “Blacktown.” A young man, “Richard Henry” (David Samuel, who also plays the defendant “Tom Robinson” in Mockingbird), has returned to his hometown from New York City where he was a rising star on the Apollo Theatre Stage, but now describing himself as a “raggedy-assed, out-of-work, busted musician” to his grandmother, “Mother Henry” (Alexis Green). His father, “Rev. Meridian Henry” (Jude Sandy) attempts to straddle the dividing line (“meridian”) as the ambassador of Blacktown to Whitetown, as does his counterpart “Parnell James” (Stephen Thorne), the local newspaper editor who functions as the ambassador of Whitetown to Blacktown. (In Mockingbird, Thorne plays “Atticus Finch,” the lawyer character based on novelist Harper Lee’s father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who had given up the active practice of law and had become a newspaper editor by the time of the real-life trial of Walter Lett that was the main factual basis for her novel.) Inconveniently for Parnell, his childhood friend “Lyle Britten” (Mauro Hantman) is about to be tried for murdering Richard, motivated by a perceived insult to Lyle’s wife “Jo” (Rebecca Gibel) during a visit to their store by Richard accompanied by his friend “Lorenzo” (ordinarily played by Ashley Mitchell, but due to illness covered by Green in the performance reviewed). Richard, having reunited with his ex-girlfriend “Juanita” (Mia Ellis), wants to leave town with her, but he doesn’t get that chance.

Because the entire play is told in flashback – it opens with Lyle disposing of Richard’s dead body and speaking the first line, “And may every nigger like this nigger end like this nigger – face down in the weeds!” – the audience is treated to various accounts of events, Rashomon-like, such as Lyle telling Parnell what happened when Richard came into the store and insulted his wife. The second half of Blues (actually the last of three acts, following Trinity’s sole intermission) consists of a trial, similar to that in Mockingbird, but far more stylized with a sort of chorus of Whitetown participants including the “Judge” (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), the court “Clerk” (Rachel Warren), the jury “Foreman” (Sinan Eczacibasi), and anonymous juror (Will Turner). The witnesses are called in quick succession, questioned by the counsel for the defense, incongruously named “The State” (Angela Brazil), and the prosecutor, “Counsel for the Bereaved” who is, conspicuously, not the counsel for the state.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Lyle will be found not guilty by the jury, but afterward Meridian and Parnell ask him what really happened, expecting an honest answer because he is constitutionally protected from being tried twice for the same offense. He answers, truthfully, just like the murderer of Emmet Till proudly gave a magazine interview.

Sandy as “Meridian” and Thorne as “Parnell” are outstanding, playing off each other in their most effective scenes. Samuel as “Richard” rises to a challenging role, a man out of place who knows it and meets his fate with full adult knowledge and comprehension, more like the heroic Medgar Evers than the teenage Emmet Till. Yet it is Hantman as “Lyle” who is brilliant in the most difficult role, echoing the Shakespearean “Iago” of Othello, whom Baldwin made every effort to humanize: “Yet, with another part of my mind, I am aware that no man is a villain in his own eyes. Something in the man knows – must know – that what he is doing is evil; but in order to accept the knowledge the man would have to change. What is ghastly and really almost hopeless in our racial situation now is that the crimes we have committed are so great and so unspeakable that the acceptance of this knowledge would lead, literally, to madness. The human being then, in order to protect himself, closes his eyes, compulsively repeats his crimes, and enters a spiritual darkness which no one can describe.”

Blues for Mister Charlie, directed by Brian McEleny, Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St, PVD. Telephone: 401-351-4242; Web site: http://www.trinityrep.com Three performances only: Fri (3/18, 4/1), Sun (3/27).

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