Wednesday, September 13, 2017

1964’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” Packs a Gut-punch

Cast of Blues for Mister Charlie (Bruce Tom)
Blues for Mister Charlie
The Williams Project
(at Franklin High School)
Through September 17, 2017

No matter that a piece of theater demands that the participants say the “n” word because it has to be said, it’s still a painful experience to me. How much more so might it be to people who have lived with the history of being labeled with such!

And say it they must for a historic play by James Baldwin, crafted as a memorial to the murder of young 14-year-old Emmett Till and Baldwin’s friend, Medgar Evers. Written in 1964, it reflects the language of the time, where people in small southern towns still peppered their speech with it and segregation was virtually the law of the land.
Till was murdered because he interacted with at a white woman at her grocery store. She reported, and years later confessed that it was a lie, that he had made “advances” at her and her husband and his brother kipnapped, beat, mutilated and shot him and dumped him in the river.

Baldwin’s play replicates a similar story in a small Southern town. Similar to Till, who grew up in Chicago, Baldwin’s young protagonist, Richard (Ryan Williams French), has gone North and returned. Richard has learned that not everyone behaves toward black folk the way the small towners behave, and he is clearly tired of kowtowing to the accepted way of deferring to the white man.

Since Baldwin begins the play with a gunshot, we already know that Richard has challenged the status quo to his own detriment. The main mystery is whether his assailant is going to be charged, and if charged, is going to actually be tried for murder. Everyone in the black community knows it’s Lyle (Leicester Landon), even though Lyle says he didn’t do it.

The overt racism by the whites is hard to look at without sorrow. The depiction of their casual extra-legal attitudes, the acceptance of Lyle’s lies, even though most know he’s probably lying, is hard to stomach, but also clearly historical, if not current in some circumstances.

This stripped down production is not busy with set, lights or a lot of sound. Director Ryan Guzzo Purcell has added some glorious “choral” singers and a small band, music directed by Aaron Norman. The cast members who sing are also all excellent singers. They bring both celebration and mourning fully into the piece.

Max Rosenak plays the most conflicted character, Parnell James. As a resident of this small town, he knows everyone, and even considers himself a friend to both Lyle and Richard’s father, Rev. Meridian (Rafael Jordan). As a white man, he believes that he can straddle these separated societies, but the black residents know that, as kindly as he might be, his loyalty is likely to end up “white,” after all.

With a strong cast, including Brenda Joyner and Reggie D. White in key portions, Purcell continues to show his ensemble’s strength in presentation. This is a gut-punch of a play with a message that unfortunately resonates all too currently, in spite of years of effort to rise above entrenched racism.

A small tweak: Purcell’s particular desire to insert movements that distract and lessen the impact can perhaps be dispensed with in future. We spend too much time trying to figure out what the characters are doing rather than hearing them.

As difficult as it is to hear the “n” word and to see the overt racism on stage, this is a powerful and well-worthwhile production. Bring your teens and your friends and your family to Franklin High. Launch powerful discussions afterword and reflect on the play’s current message.

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