A correction was made to this review on Sept. 12, 2005.
Some plays grapple with history, and some feel like history themselves. “Blues for Mister Charlie,” a little-seen 1964 drama by James Baldwin, does both. Enjoying a limited run from Turtle Shell Prods., this unceasingly earnest bit of agitprop was inspired by the lynching of Emmett Till, an African-American boy whose white attackers went free. That’s a powerful subject, as evidenced by last month’s documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” Baldwin’s take, however, bears the turgid stamp of a playwriting style that has long since disappeared.
It’s Baldwin’s approach to politics that makes the play feel antiquated. Tracing the murder of Richard (Matthew S. Morgan), a young man returning to Mississippi after being educated in the north, the script makes no room for subtext or ambiguity. Characters speak as rhetorical mouthpieces, making lengthy pronouncements about the iniquity black Americans face at the hands of whites.
The entire show, in fact, is an excuse for these speeches. Since we know from the first scene that Richard is dead and that white storeowner Lyle Britten (Mika Duncan) has killed him, the plot holds no revelations. By the time Lyle finally goes to court, we’ve heard so many characters assert the dominance of white society that there’s no doubt what the jury will decide. Traditional storytelling just isn’t the point: we’re meant to sit back and consider Baldwin’s anguished plea for justice.
Baldwin’s contemporaries in this talk-heavy form — think Lorraine Hansberry or Depression-era writers like Clifford Odets — endure because they give their ideas complexity and texture. But in “Blues for Mister Charlie,” there’s only one point being made: White people make things hard.
In its time, this stridency may have been eye opening to those who hadn’t acknowledged inequality, but it’s hard to imagine a modern Gotham crowd that won’t have thought beyond this superficial message.
Try as it might, the production cannot overcome three hours of joyless sanctimony. Director Brad Malow, at least, approaches the material with restraint, keeping his massive cast from overacting the fraught situations. He also layers scenes with provocative detail, such as the boys who silently teach each other dance steps in the background of a barroom argument. Without supplanting Baldwin’s text, Malow suggests a rich world of characters and relationships that the playwright never explores.
Lighting designer Lance Darcy’s work is equally rich. Gino Ng has crafted a sparse woodplank set, so it falls on the lights to guide us through the play’s many locations and jumps in time. Darcy does remarkable work blending the warm-amber past, when Richard was alive, with the cold-yellow present. Memories remain, the designer tells us, but they’re altered forever by what happens now.
Someone should send that message to John Cooper, Turtle Shell’s artistic director. On preview night, he jumped on-stage during curtain call to reiterate Baldwin’s message, making a link to our current political climate.
As worded by Cooper, though, the bid for relevance felt forced. Even though Baldwin’s themes remain vital, times have changed his play from a bracing statement into an artifact.