Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

According to Baldwin, the subject matter for the play was first suggested to him by novelist and filmmaker Elia Kazan at the end of 1958. The decision to complete the play was made only after Medgar Evers, a prominent civil rights activist and one of Baldwin’s friends, had been killed in June, 1963. Baldwin saw the murders of Evers and Emmett Till as signs of “terrible darkness,” and he stated that Blues for Mister Charlie was “one man’s attempt to bear witness to the reality and the power of light.”

The reality of which the author speaks is oppressive racism, and until Blues for Mister Charlie, no playwright had confronted racism in America in this manner. Before the play was performed, some readers (primarily white friends and acquaintances of Baldwin) believed that the work was too radical, too extreme. Its unconventional structure bothered some as well. Precisely these two elements—radical content and unconventional form—in Blues for Mister Charlie helped usher in the Black Nationalist theater, anticipating the work of such writers as Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, Woodie King, and Ed Bullins. At the time, Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones) thought that Blues for Mister Charlie “marked the point at which White America gave up on Baldwin.”

The reception of Blues for Mister Charlie, however, was generally good. Baldwin’s biographer William Weatherby has noted that Kenneth Tynan,...

(The entire section is 494 words.)