Blues for Mister Charlie
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First edition cover
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.
Act I 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. When he leaves to go tell Britten about his future arrest, the students talk amongst themselves about the struggles they as Black people. The scene shifts to Lyle and his wife Jo Britten in their store. His wife brings up the death of Richard, fearful that her husband may go to jail because of a past transgression he had with another Black man who died as a result of the confrontation. Lyle defends himself by claiming self-defense. When Parnell Jones arrives, Lyle assures both of them not to worry. The scene shifts into a flashback with Richard and his grandmother, Mother Henry. He confronts her about the death of his mother who he believes was pushed down the stairs though Mother Henry claims she fell down on accident. Richard swears that he will protect himself from the white man at all costs, showing her a gun. Before she leaves, his grandmother pleads with him to get rid of it. Soon after, the Negro students, Pete and Juanita, arrive to take Richard out to Pete D’s bar. While they’re out and dancing, Richard confides in Juanita about his time up North and how he became a junkie. Lyle arrives on the scene and bumps into Juanita, interrupting her and Richard’s dance. The two share words before Lyle leaves. Later Richard goes to talk to his father, the reverend, about taking the nonviolent route, handing over his gun. Here the flashback ends and the scene opens with Parnell returning to the church to reassure Reverend Meridian Henry that Lyle will be taken to court; however, he also makes sure to say that the storeowner will not be convicted. Parnell tells the reverend to just let the matter go. The scene ends as he departs.
Act II opens with Jo Britten and the white townspeople in her home. They discuss how frighten they have become of the Black townspeople lately. Soon Parnell Jones arrives and gets into a debate over his paper and his place in the Black community with the white men. Lyle arrives some time later and the others continue to tease Parnell as he proposes to put Black people in the jury at Lyle’s trial. The white townspeople soon leave with only the Brittens and Parnell in the house. Lyle leaves to take a shower and when they are alone, Jo confronts Parnell about her husband sleeping with Old Bill’s—the Black man Lyle killed—wife, Willa Mae. She asks Parnell if he had ever loved a Black woman. When he says yes, Jo says that it is possible that Lyle had loved Willa Mae and killed her husband in spite. She continues to say that if that is possible then it is possible that he killed Richard. Lyle returns with his son and passes him to Jo. The scene changes to Lyle and Parnell in the store talking about Lyle’s relationship with Willa Mae. They also discuss the first time Lyle met Richard. Again, Lyle denies killing him. Jo arrives with their son, ending the discussion. Another flashback occurs, showing Richard and Lorenzo going to the Brittens’ store. Richard humiliates Lyle in front of his wife before he runs off with Lorenzo. The flashback ends, going back to Parnell and Lyle talking in the store. Lyle slips up and describes how Richard’s body was left face down in high weeds. When Parnell asks how he knew that, Lyle claims to have read it in the newspaper. Parnell leaves soon after to go to Richard’s funeral, ending the second act.
Act III opens up with Lyle’s trial. It has been two months since Richard’s death. A number of characters are called up to take the stand as witnesses and assess Richard’s character. Jo lies about Richard attempting to sexually assault her in the store. Juanita, Lorenzo, Mother Henry, the reverend and Parnell Jones defend Richard’s character when called up. Papa D, the owner of the bar, takes the stand and tells the court that he witnessed Richard leave with Lyle on a night when he was closing up the bar. A brief flashback shows Lyle threatening to kill Papa D if he would to tell people Lyle didn’t kill Old Bill in self-defense. The court rules in Lyle’s favor. Another flashback shows Lyle killing an unarmed, nonviolent Richard before disposing his body in the high weeds. The act ends with Lyle telling Reverend Meridian Henry that he will never apologize for the death of Richard.
"Mister Charlie" is a phrase used by African Americans that refers to the white man.
Richard Henry, son of Meridian Henry Meridian Henry, a Negro Minister. Mother Henry, Meridian Henry’s mother.
Tom, Ken, Arthur, Juanita, Lorenzo, Pete, all Negro students.
Lyle Britten, a white storeowner. Jo Britten, Lyle’s wife.
Parnell James, editor of the local newspaper.
Papa D., Negro owner of a juke joint.
Hazel, Lillian, Susan, Ralph, Ellis, Rev. Phelps, George, all white townspeople.
Counsel for the Bereaved
Congregation of Rev. Henry’s church, Pallbearers, Blacktown, Whitetown
Critiques of Christianity
James Baldwin uses this play as a vehicle to address his issues with Christianity, a religion used historically to justify the enslavement of Africans. He argues that Christianity is a type of plague that “has the power to destroy every human relationship”. Through his character Lorenzo, he denounces the religion for its ability to be used to preach passivity while endorsing violence. Lorenzo articulates the lack of empathy the religion has for the Black community, calling it “the white God” who ignores others’ suffering at the hands of the irrational. He accuses the reverend of praying to a god that only cares those who are white and that it is that god who is responsible for the destruction of Black lives.
Baldwin challenges the common beliefs of morality between whites and Blacks. With whites as the targeted audience, he associates his Black characters with traits commonly associated with whites such as “godliness, courage and braggadocio”. His white characters possess the weaknesses stereotypically attributed to Blacks such as “lust, lack of moral strength, and violence”. By situating his characters to reflect the opposite of what was expected of his audience, Baldwin places the viewers in the position to acknowledge the complexities of human nature. His restricting of the white community to one dimension of human nature as the white community does to Blacks compels the white audience to come face to face with how humanity may be stripped by the simple act of shrinking one’s complexities.
- "Blues for Mister Charlie", Encyclopaedia Britannica.
- New York Times, Theater: 'Blues for Mister Charlie' by Howard Taubman, April 24, 1964 
- Blues for Mister Charlie at stageplays.com
- Bigsby, C. W. E. (Apr 1967). "The Committed Writer: James Baldwin as Dramatist". Twentieth Century Literature 13 (1): 39–48. Retrieved 06/04/2014.
- "Blues for Mr. Charlie". Black Drama: 1850 to Present. University of Chicago. Retrieved 06/04/2014.
- Turner, Darwin T, (Spring 1995). "Visions of Love and Manliness in a Blackening World: Dramas of Black Life Since 1953". The Black Scholar 25 (2): 2–12. Retrieved 06/04/2014.
- Nelson, Emmanuel S. (Summer 1983). "James Baldwin's Vision of Otherness and Community". MELUS 10 (2): 27–31. Retrieved 06/04/2014.