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A CurtainUp Review
Blues For Mister Charlie

"I've been thinking. I've had to think. Would I have been such a Good Christian if I hadn't been born black? Maybe I had to become a Christian in order to have any dignity at all. Since I wasn't a man in men's eyes, then I could be a man in the eyes of God. But that didn't protect my wife. She's dead, too soon, we don't really know how. That didn't protect my son — he's dead, we know how too well. That hasn't changed this town — this town, where you couldn't find a white Christian at high noon on Sunday! The eyes of God— maybe those eyes are blind — I never let myself think of that before."— Reverend Meridian Henry .
Blues for Mr. Charlie
Stephen Macari and Jasmine Romero
(Photo: Clarissa Marzán)
The civil-rights era novelist James Baldwin’s second play Blues for Mister Charlie is a flawed, yet powerful and ferocious play. With three full acts, and clocking in at roughly two and three-quarters hours, it’s far too long. The script repeats itself throughout, unsubtly clubbing the audience over the head to get its many points across, and even adds details peripheral to the story, leaving very little ambiguous. Having said that, the play is nonetheless an important one, especially for younger audiences. Unbelievably, it has not seen a New York City production since 1964. The New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT), in its first ever production, has revived the play and done a terrific job with it, staying rightfully faithful even to an inconsistent script.

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.

Blues For Mister Charlie
By James Baldwin
Directed by Eugene Nesmith
Assistant Director: Naya Tabia Johnson
Dramaturg: Chris Rempfer
Production Manager: Javier Suarez
Cast: Stephen Macari (Lyle Britten), Jasmine Romero (Jo Britten), Tiffany Warren and Franceli Chapman (Juanita Harmon), Dennis Jordan (Parnell James), Reginald L. Wilson (Richard Henry), Leroy Graham (Pete), Brian Reese (Lorenzo), Earl Griffin (Meridian Henry), Kelvin Hale (Papa D), Billy Lake (Reverend Phelps/Judge), Johnnie Mae (Mother Henry), Chandler Wild (Ralph/State’s Attorney), Johnny Maldonado (Foreman/Ellis), Katherine Guenther (Susan), Amanda Figueiredo (Hazel), Lucas Babits-Feinerman (Tom), Nathaniel Manning (Counsel for the Bereaved/Ensemble), Trevania Campbell (Blacktown/Ensemble), Dorothy Davis (Blacktown/Ensemble), Tatiana Adams (Soloist/Ensemble)
Set Design: Heather Wolensky
Costume Design: Mary Myers
Lighting Design: Brian Aldous
Props: Kaleda Davis
Production Stage Manager: Tara Nachtigall
Assistant Stage Manager: Dunstan Wallace
Running Time: Two and three-quarter hours, including one brief intermission
New Haarlem Arts Theatre, 160 Convent Avenue, Compton-Goethals Hall, Room 311, New York, NY 10031,
From June 23, 2011 performance date; Closing July 17;
Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:00 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Reviewed by William Coyle based on June 25 performance
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