by James Baldwin, 1964
Blues for Mister Charlie is Baldwin’s second play, and it’s one that draws inspiration from then-current events. In his author’s note, Baldwin explains that it is based on the case of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The murderers were known—the accuser’s husband and his half-brother—but were acquitted by an all-white jury of beating, mutilating, and shooting the boy. While we know now that Till’s accuser fabricated this claim, it was certainly suspected at the time, and Baldwin gives credence to these suspicions in a story that centers around the killing of a young black man accused by a white woman of grabbing her. His murderer also goes free, the court justifying his actions of both killing an innocent man and lying on the stand when questioned about it.
Baldwin writes that the play takes place in Plaguetown, USA, and the plague is race and the concept of Christianity. The stage is set so that one side is Whitetown and the other side is Blacktown, with a church in the middle of the two. It opens with Lyle Britten carrying the dead body of Richard Henry and wishing for every black person to end up face down in the weeds, just like Richard. We know from the beginning that Lyle has committed this crime, and so do the residents of Blacktown. However, they’re skeptical that he’ll be made to pay anything for his actions, with the young Juanita, Richard’s one-time girlfriend, saying that asking to convict him is “asking for heaven on earth. After all, they haven’t even arrested him yet.” She goes on to ask why he should be convicted anyway; after all, he’s no worse than all the others who are defending “the honor and purity of his tribe!”
The claim, according to Lyle’s wife Jo, is that Richard came into their store and wanted to buy a Coke for him and a friend who was waiting outside. She says that when she tried to give him the Cokes, he grabbed her hands, pushed himself against her, and tried to kiss her. She then yelled for her husband to come to the front of the store to help her. In a flashback, we see that nothing so tawdry or violent ever happened. What did happen is that Richard spoke back to Lyle, whom Jo only called to come to the front to bring change for the bill Richard gave her to pay for the Cokes. Not liking the tone of Richard’s voice, Lyle took it upon himself to assuage his wounded pride by relieving Richard of his life. Of course, much like Till’s murderers, Richard is found not guilty and goes free.
The term “Mister Charlie” is one that the residents of Blacktown use to refer to white people. “You’re Mister Charlie. All white men are Mister Charlie!” Richard’s father Meridian explains to Parnell, the one white man who sympathizes with their desire to be considered human. Even so, Parnell is incapable of admitting to what the black residents know in their hearts—that Lyle killed Richard. He insists that the evidence is only circumstantial and is tricky, to which Meridian asks, “When it involves a white man killing a black man—if Lyle didn’t kill him, Parnell, who did?” Parnell’s response is that he doesn’t know, but they also don’t know it was Lyle. Never mind that Lyle also does not deny his crime. In the absence of body cameras and cell phones and social media on which to distribute recorded footage, definitive proof is hard to come by. What these characters don’t yet know is that even with all of that technology to come, conviction will remain largely a dream.
Reading the play itself was a little difficult, as the edition I found didn’t include a list of characters and their roles in the play (only a list of actors) and the indications that the scene had shifted from one part of town to the other were easy to miss. Still, I imagine the play itself to have been a powerful event, one that depicted the gaping wound of racism at the time, which has only begun to heal at a glacial pace. As in all of his works, Baldwin’s words are sharp, never letting the country off the hook for the systems that allow such injustices to take place. The real crime in the play is not the murder, but the society that encourages heinous acts to take place without so much as batting an eye.