Richard: You still determined to break your neck.
Juanita: Well, it’s a neck-breaking time. I wouldn’t like to appear to be above the battle.
The killing is not in doubt. A black man is dead. A white man pulled the trigger. The only real question is why.
James Baldwin wrote “Blues for Mr. Charlie” in 1964, loosely basing the story on the notorious acquittal, 9 years before, of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam for the murder of Emmett Till.
But today, in St. Louis, the echoes of Ferguson are impossible to ignore.
“Some of the dialogue, some of the exchanges, could be happening on any street, in any Ferguson commission, in any police board meeting,” said Ron Himes, the Henry E. Hampton Jr. Artist-in-Residence in the Performing Arts Department (PAD) in Arts & Sciences.
“It’s the same issues, the same attitudes, the same fears,” said Himes, who will direct the show that runs Feb. 20 through March 1 in Edison Theatre on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. “You hear lines in the play and just automatically want to add ‘hashtag Ferguson.’ ”
‘He believes I killed that boy?’
The story opens with a gunshot.
Lyle Britten, a white storeowner in a small southern town, stands over the body of Richard Henry, prodigal son of a local minister. The African-American community calls for justice but — with blacks still denied the vote — few are optimistic.
And yet a week later, goaded by media attention, the sheriff decides to file charges. “Whitetown” is incredulous but “Blacktown” rejoices. Parnell James, editor of the local paper, brings the news to Lyle and his wife, Jo, as they play with their newborn son.
“It would be very easy to make Lyle a fire-breathing racist, full of hate,” Himes said. “And either Whitetown or Blacktown could easily become stereotype. The challenge is to put some flesh on these characters, to allow them their humanity. Like all humans, they have weaknesses and frailties. That’s the tragedy.”
Richard, seen in flashback, emerges as smart and proud but also wracked by anger and doubt. Years away, working as a musician in Chicago, have broadened Richard’s horizons but also enabled bad habits, leaving him cynical and exhausted.
“You see some of Baldwin in Richard,” Himes said. “He goes north, encounters a different society, and comes back with a different attitude, a different sense of himself. But Baldwin was a child minister, and we also hear his voice in the preacher Meridian. And with Juanita (Richard’s girlfriend) he makes some very strong statements about sex and sexuality.”
‘Fury in its belly’
Though only Baldwin’s second work for the stage — following “The Amen Corner” a decade before — “Blues for Mr. Charlie” opened on Broadway with Al Freeman Jr. as Richard and Rip Torn as Lyle. The New York Times praised it as “a play with fires of fury in its belly, tears of anguish in its eyes and a roar of protest in its throat.”
But in the years since, “Blues for Mr. Charlie” has been infrequently performed. Himes, wanting to acknowledge the show’s 50th anniversary, selected it for the PAD’s 2014-15 season last spring — months before the tragic incident in Ferguson.
“A lot of people still don’t want to have a conversation about Darren Wilson shooting Michael Brown,” Himes said. “The great thing about theater is that it allows us to have a dialogue about Lyle killing Richard. And you know? It’s basically the same conversation.
“Baldwin’s writing is eloquent and poetic,” Himes said. “There are moments where it could read a little preachy, but I find in some instances, the soapbox is sort of necessary.”
Today, in far too many neighborhoods, “Baldwin is still right on target.”
Cast and crew
The cast of 34 is led by Jonathan Williford as Richard, Joshua Parrack as Lyle and Zack Schultz as Parnell James. Anna Richards and Chelsea Whitaker are Jo and Juanita. Matthew Galbreath is Meridian.
Hatsephi Kushma is Mother Henry. Kevin Bailey is Papa D. Ryan Thier is Rev. Phelps. Philip Dixon is Counsel for the Bereaved. Danny Washelesky is The State.
Nicholas Rule is the student Lorenzo, with Tobi Fadiran, Deanna McPherson and Trent Ellis as classmates Tom, Kendra and Pete.
Representing the white townspeople are Taylor Brantley, McKenna Rogan and Katie Jeanneret as Hazel, Susan and Lily; and Alex Mason, Jack Robards and Harley Greene as George, Ralph and Ellis.
Scenic and costume design are by Rob Morgan, senior lecturer in drama in the PAD, and Maxine Wright. Lighting and sound are by Kathy Perkins and Alexander Booth. Assistant director is Shanara Gabrielle.
Dramaturg is Danee Conley. Stage manager is Claire Stark, with assistance from Sarah Azizo. Props are by Emily Frei.
“Blues for Mr. Charlie” begins at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20 and 21; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 22. Performances continue the following weekend, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27 and 28; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 1.
Performances take place in Edison Theatre, located in the Mallinckrodt Center, 6465 Forsyth Blvd. Tickets are $15, or $10 for students, seniors and Washington University faculty and staff, and are available through the Edison Theatre Box Office.
In addition, the PAD will host a panel discussion about the show at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16. Titled “A 50-year Reflection: From ‘Blues for Mr. Charlie’ to Ferguson,” the discussion will explore parallels between the play and recent events. Details here.
For more information, call 314-935-6543.