Blues for Mister Charlie: A Play

By: James Baldwin
1964
Drama
Subject Matter: Racism
Rating: 4/5

Blues for Mister Charlie book cover

I’ll start by saying that I’m not typically a huge fan of plays. So for Blues for Mister Charlie to get a four star rating is a big deal.

But, man oh man, is this powerful stuff.

It reads like a novel, which is a feat of wonder for a play.

There is real characterization, real development, vivid imagery. It’s one that you’ll want to read cover to cover without pause.

It’s a three-act play. But there are many flashbacks (set up ingeniously, by the way), so you get much more than three acts, really. The drama centers around the murder of a young black man named Richard Henry by a white man named Lyle Britten. It gives varying perspectives and varying opinions about the murder.

An important note: this drama is based off of the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was killed by two white men (Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam) in the summer of 1955 in a hate crime. As such, it’s not exactly a spoiler to tell you that, in the play, Lyle Britten is found not guilty.

Baldwin dedicated the play to Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist who was murdered the year before Blues for Mister Charlie was published, and “to the memory of the dead children of Birmingham.” So it is clear from the get-go that Baldwin intends this play to be a protest in and of itself.

What’s unique about this play is that it does not simply give you a point of view. It gives you myriads of viewpoints, but more than that, it gives you real characters. It gives you characters with whom you sympathize, who seem like “good people,” on both sides of the case. Although it in no way shape or form intends to forgive Britten/Bryant, it shows you a real insight into “Mister Charlie’s” motivations, thoughts, concerns, and justifications.

I’ve never seen this play acted before. I think it could be wonderful if done right. Has anyone seen it?

It’s a worthy play. Worthy of your attention, your thoughtful consideration, and your praise. It’s not an easy play to read as it doesn’t paint a particularly nice picture. So don’t pick it up as a casual beach read.

But if you’ve got some time to delve into the issues of racism that are still with us to this day, Blues for Mister Charlie should be at the top of your list.

 

*****

If you liked this play, check out these books:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

 

Coming up:

Christy by Catherine Marshall

The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka by Roald Dahl

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

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