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Blues For Mister Charlie
Inspired by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who was killed after an encounter with the wife of the white owner of a general store, Baldwin’s play non-chronologically traces events surrounding the murder of the play’s protagonist, Richard Henry, exuberantly played by Reginald L. Wilson. Like the much younger Till, who returned to his home town after visiting Chicago, Richard has gone north to New York City and returns to find his hometown stuck hatefully in time. His passions and rage are bound to brush against the racist ways of the white folks, and they do.
The set is sparse and simple, yet well thought out. It is divided into two sides: what Baldwin refers to as "Blacktown" and "Whitetown." A video projection of a church marks Blacktown and a projection of a modest but fashionable country home depicts Whitetown. Rarely, do the two sides interact, except for the town’s two go-betweens, the white and brutal store proprietor, Lyle Britten (Stephen Macari) and the black nightclub owner and occasional pimp of local black women for white men, Papa D. Their only mutual interest is attraction to money.
The acting in NHAT’s production is uniformly fine. The most enigmatic character of all is Parnell James (Dennis Jordan), a newspaper editor who is torn between loyalty to the whites and compassion for blacks. Mr. Jordan often mesmerizes as the small town newspaper editor who wants to get to the seemingly obvious bottom of Richard’s death, but can’t quite relinquish his role as devil’s advocate for both sides. Macari, who, according to the program, has been acting for less than three years, turns in a decent performance in the very pivotal role of Britten, though I might have cast someone with more experience. He could have also benefitted from intensive dialect training to get his Southern drawl down right. His performance is occasionally too workmanlike and he doesn’t make the most of emotionally volatile scenes. Yet, I have no doubt that we will be seeing more of him in years to come. A standout is Johnnie Mae as the utterly believable Mother Henry, Richard’s grandmother, who tries unsuccessfully to quell his reckless rage against the cruel leaders of the racist town.
Though it’s no fault of NHAT, the second half of the play is the weaker of the two. The quasi surreal courtroom scene, its ferocity now eroded by society’s progress and uninformed by even the most elemental judicial procedure (perhaps deliberately caricatured by Baldwin as a "kangaroo court"), borders on comic agitprop. Baldwin has the State’s Attorney (Chandler Wild) ask all sorts of irrelevant questions for the sole purpose of piling on the bigotry. The black side of the courtroom — in spite of its understanding that Lyle Britten will likely be acquitted by the all-white jury and that their existences will once again be shrouded in fear — becomes improbably defiant. Perhaps Baldwin meant this to symbolize a turning point in attitudes but the shift is too abrupt, too histrionic. he audience laughed heartily (and even to the surprise of a few of the actors) at some choice bits where black and white court audience members hurl insults at each other before an apathetic judge. Despite the play’s flaws, the performers are true to the script and do their best with what it offers them.
Though Director Eugene Nesmith (who is also the Founding Artistic Director of NHAT) sometimes has his performers overact, he, Assistant Director Naya Tabia Johnson, Set Designer Heather Wolensky, and Lighting Designer Brian Aldous make the most of the set. For instance, they quite cleverly, with just three or four couples dancing to Chubby Checker’s "The Twist" at a small bar, recreate a swinging nightclub in Blacktown. The popular period music throughout the play is evocative of the times, though I might have omitted Howlin’ Wolf’s "Smokestack Lightnin’" from the list, as it made me immediately think of the Viagra commercial with which it has now become agonizingly synonymous.
All in all, NHAT turns in a very strong inaugural performance with Blues for Mister Charlie. Anyone interested in Baldwin or the history of the civil rights era should take the time to see this plucky performance.
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