The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Blues for Mister Charlie is based on the case of Emmett Till, a young black man who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The murderer was subsequently acquitted. The play is cyclical in its structure, opening and ending with the killing of Richard while occasionally utilizing a series of flashbacks to establish the reasons for Richard’s death. This structure allows for a focus on issues such as race, sex, and Christianity.

With Richard’s murder established at the very beginning, the action switches to show Richard’s father, Meridian, and a group of black students demonstrating in protest of the murder. Parnell James, the editor of the local newspaper, interrupts with the news that a warrant has been issued for Lyle Britten’s arrest.

Caught between his desire for justice and his friendship for Lyle, Parnell runs off to alert Lyle of the impending arrest. With Parnell’s assurance that he will “never turn against” his friend, Lyle is confident that he will not be convicted. After all, Lyle says, Richard was “a northern nigger” who “went north and got ruined” and came back to the South “to make trouble.”

Lyle’s stereotypical racist interpretation of Richard’s behavior is underlined in the first of a series of flashbacks in the play. Richard appears talking to his father and his grandmother soon after he has returned from New York. Richard is bitter with hatred for whites; he has no tolerance for Christianity, and he is impatient with the powerlessness that his father exhibits. What is more, he has a gun.

Richard next appears at Papa D’s juke joint, where Richard publicly boasts about...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Act 1 of Blues for Mister Charlie begins in darkness. The audience hears the sound of a gunshot. The lights are brought up slowly to reveal Lyle picking up Richard’s body and dropping it upstage out of sight of the audience. Lyle exclaims, “And may every nigger like this nigger end like this nigger—face down in the weeds.” In the next scene, at Meridian’s church, the minister coaches college students who will serve as protesters for black civil rights and for justice in the prosecution of Richard’s murderer. One student doubts whether the suspected murderer, Lyle, will be arrested. Lyle had previously killed the husband of Willa Mae, the black woman with whom he was having an affair. The police had ruled the killing was done in self-defense even though it seemed unlikely that Lyle would have had to kill the black man, who, at the age of sixty, was no match for the much younger store owner. Meridian cautions the skeptical student not to harbor a cynical attitude toward the criminal justice system. The minister assures him that his white liberal friend, Parnell, will be an advocate for justice in the case of Richard’s death. In the next scene at the Britten home, however, Parnell warns Lyle of the imminent arrival of the sheriff, who will charge him with the murder of Meridian’s son. Lyle refuses to escape arrest and the possibility of punishment because he is confident he will not be convicted of the crime.

In a flashback scene, Richard tells Juanita about his troubled life in New York. A struggling musician, he nevertheless attracted the attentions of white women and engaged in meaningless affairs with them. Lacking a sense of dignity, he succumbed to the allure of drugs and found himself in jail as a consequence of his addiction. Back in his southern hometown, Richard now wants to live a life of integrity. Juanita admits she cares for him and tells of her willingness to act as his guardian angel.

At Meridian’s church, Parnell defends Lyle’s racist attitudes and behavior as being the result of his lowly socioeconomic status. He characterizes Lyle as a “poor white man” who has “been just as victimized in this part of the world as the blacks have been!” Unmoved by Parnell’s defense of his friend, Meridian asks him to take Lyle into his confidence to learn if he murdered Richard. The scene ends with Parnell unwilling either to grant or reject the minister’s request.

Act 2 begins at the Britten house, where white church members have gathered to support the exoneration of Lyle. Parnell angers the group with his suggestion that African Americans be allowed to sit on the jury in order to permit a fair trial. After the church members leave (and while Lyle changes...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Blues for Mister Charlie calls for a set which mirrors the division between the races in the United States. Acts 1 and 2 utilize a skeletal framework of an African American church. On one side of the set, the audience views scenes taking place in the black community, while on the other side it sees scenes occurring in the white side of town. An aisle divides the two stage spaces and serves as the symbolic gulf separating the two races. This gulf between the black and white communities is quite apparent in act 3, which utilizes the skeleton of a courthouse. The judge’s bench sits center stage and separates black and white spectators. The loyalties of both groups are unwavering: As each witness testifies, in turn, each side speaks in unison to give its racially biased opinions on the testimony. The set design places African Americans and whites in opposition to one another to emphasize the point that one cannot vacillate in his opinions on racial concerns, for there is no middle ground.

Monologues are used effectively throughout the play to reveal the internal conflicts of the characters as they attempt to come to terms with their own racial attitudes. Perhaps the best example of this occurs in act 3 when Parnell has been called to the witness stand. Parnell reveals through a monologue that he is obsessed with wanting to be with black people: “I’ve wanted my hands full of them, wanted to drown them, laughing and dancing and making...

(The entire section is 520 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. James Baldwin. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2006. Part of the Bloom’s Biocritiques series, this collection comprises four extended biographical essays on the author’s accomplishments. Bloom also edited a 2007 volume with the same title featuring critical essays on specific Baldwin works and genres.

Hernton, Calvin C. “A Fiery Baptism.” In James Baldwin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974. Comments on the negative reaction of whites and the positive reaction of African Americans to the performance of the play. Argues that Blues for Mister Charlie forces whites to face themselves squarely and to confront their fears and guilt. Asserts that the play severed “the romantic involvement between James Baldwin and white America.”

Jones, Mary E. James Baldwin. Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta University, 1971. Short literary biography with an extensive and valuable bibliography of works by and on Baldwin. The bibliography includes several pieces of criticism and interpretation of Blues for Mister Charlie.

Leeming, David. James Baldwin: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1994. This major biography of Baldwin devotes an entire chapter to Blues for Mister Charlie.

Margolies, Edward. “The Negro Church: James Baldwin and the Christian...

(The entire section is 421 words.)