Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie Pulses With Humanity and Heartbreak

by Carla Bell

James Baldwin was many things: a novelist, essayist, orator, a realist, a forerunner of intersectionality before it had a name, and a playwright. Perhaps his most well-known works are Notes of a Native Son, which “inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century” (Amazon), and The Fire Next Time, a compilation of two essays, A Letter To My Nephew and Down at the Cross.

Now, there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure –Baldwin, The Fire Next Time 

Baldwin was a bright, unforgiving light and mirror on America. His work is a treasure of eloquent indictment. He was almost clinical in his manner of observing and disseminating truth through brave storytelling, and duty-bound in his activism, but at rest in it, because his activism was his art, and his art was his activism. Perhaps that’s what makes his work relevant in every season of every year, whenever looking back.

James Arthur “Jimmy” Baldwin, born in Harlem, New York in 1924, was the eldest of nine children. In his very early years, his mother married a minister. Love for his people, outspokenness about injustices, and the study and research that’s natural to a writer put him on a brief path to youth ministry in his teens, after the example of his stepfather.  Baldwin’s time spent abroad in London, Paris, and Istanbul, is evident in his body of work which, because of its clarity and fearlessness, feels like the offspring of another culture, yet also implicitly domestic and right at home.

This feeling is conjured in The Williams Project’s adaptation of the author’s play Blues for Mister Charlie, being performed at Franklin High School from September 14th to 17th after just finishing a run of shows at Emerald City Bible Fellowship.

Blues, which Baldwin dedicated to his friend Medgar Evers after the activist’s assassination, is set in a time and place where the spirit of the black man is suppressed and diminished, and where the black boy is denied the innocence of his childhood.

A place where every black person is perceived and treated as a something nearer to beast than man, without the capacity to feel, and where, under threat of grave consequence, blacks treat whites as genteel and rightful authorities. Even though colloquial sprinklings draw the mind to times gone by, it occurs to the viewer that this story is being lived out today, and day-by-day, in Everytown, USA.

Richard Henry (Ryan Williams French), in a scene of stark contrast to his years long internal fight and promise of vengeance, in exhausted desperation expressed words of truce to Lyle Britten (Leicester Landon), “You a man and I’m a man. Let’s walk.”

Humanity, tenderness, and vulnerability is the very essence of Blackness in America. The ongoing trial of this essence, a hard truth laid out gracefully in this scene, is the painful, demeaning, and burdensome condition of every black person in the nation in 2017, as much as in 1964 and in 1864.

Somewhere between I’ll Fly Away and Twisting the Night Away, the audience may decide that this is a cast of amazing singers, who just happen to act as well! Their renditions of Come Thou Fount and Total Praise are delivered with the crispness of a single voice, and your spirit will say “amen” or “ase” (an African concept of “the power to make things happen”).

In Richard’s heartbreak and rage, Lyle’s pursuit of distinction in the absence of integrity and honor, Parnell’s turmoil and betrayal of Meridian, Juanita’s eagerness to love, Meridian’s eye contact with the audience during a monologue of conviction, and Lorenzo’s bold courtroom salute, the delivery by this young cast is rich and unencumbered.

The performance provides opportunity for audience interpretation, and the audience is encouraged to stay and discuss the performance with the actors and Director Ryan Purcell following each show. It was such a valuable experience that I almost feel I stole something. Go and get yours too.

For more information, visit Blues for Mister Charlie Presented by The Williams Project.

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based freelance writer, abolitionist, restorative justice and civil rights advocate, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.

Featured image courtesy of Bruce Tom