James Baldwin, mid-century African-American novelist and essayist, wrote only two plays. Blues for Mister Charlie is one of them. We are fortunate that the intrepid new Echo Theater Collective has mounted a production in our community at Madison Street Theater, 1010 Madison. This seldom-revived 1964 drama still burns intensely.
The production is shocking — perhaps in some ways more now than 54 years ago with its nonstop use of the “n-word” and its outspoken racist banter. The plot depicts the attitudes of the early ’60s when racist bigotry was commonly believed to be strictly a phenomenon of the Deep South.
Kamau “Maui” Jones, the ambitious director, and his large company of both seasoned professionals and hard-working newcomers, have mounted a passionate production of a loosely structured play that was clearly ahead of its time in its harsh depiction of racist oppression.
Baldwin wrote his novelistic script in 1963 during a horrific time — when President John F. Kennedy was killed, Civil Rights worker Medgar Evers was murdered, and eight black girls died when their Montgomery, Alabama church was dynamited. Although it occurred 9 years earlier, the playwright also wanted to present his take on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting family in Mississippi when he was brutally murdered for allegedly offending a white woman grocery storekeeper. His white attackers went free. The atrocity was one of the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
Trent Williams is full of energy as Richard, a young man somewhat older than Emmett Till. This pastor’s son had been up north for a few years where he became a drug addict. Now back home and “clean,” he seethes with rebelliousness. He vows never to act in a subservient way to anyone. But as a black young man, his behavior is interpreted as oversexed, cocky, and dangerous.
Chris Bruzzini solidly portrays the poor, dull-witted racist store owner, Lyle Britten. He is both frightening and sad. Bruzzini gives us a nicely shaded Britten, with a disturbing amount of human decency. Lyle Britten desperately needs power over anyone he sees as lesser, including his wife. We know from scene one that Richard is dead and that Lyle has murdered him, so the plot holds few surprises.
Many performances are outstanding, such as Richard’s love interest, played by Jasmyne McDonald and his concerned grandmother, portrayed by Sydney Paige Milligan. P.J. Destin is Rev. Meridian Henry. Cynthia Martz is the white grocery store clerk married to bigoted Lyle Britten.
Edward Voci is credible and intelligent as a progressive white newspaper editor, the one man with genuine friends on the black side of town. He conveys a touching decency.
“Mister Charlie” was a phrase once used by African Americans to refer to white folks. So the title suggests a sad song for the white man’s moral crisis.
There are clear links to our current political climate though some of the once eye-opening message now sound preachy. Though at over 3 hours, this three-act show is too slowly paced, it is still a solid production and we are fortunate to have the Echo Theater Collective revive an important, seldom-seen work in our community.
The Echo Theater Collective was established in January 2017 to “redefine community theater by choosing works that give voice to those in our community who need it the most.” Through theater and music, the collective is “designed to promote unity and cultural understanding.” Echo Theater Collective is run by Artistic Director Kamau “Maui” Jones and an executive board.
See “Blues for Mister Charlie,” Fridays and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 2 p.m., through May 27, at Madison Street Theater. $20, $15, students/seniors/veterans/teachers. Tickets: echotheatercollective.org. 1010 Madison St., Oak Park.