"Blues for Mister Charlie" is a play by American activist and author James Baldwin, first published and produced in 1964. Loosely based on the murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi before the Civil Rights Movement began, it centers on the murder of Richard Henry, a black man who returns to the Southern town where he was born to recover from drug addiction and begin a new life. Shortly after his return, he’s killed by white bigot Lyle Britten, who attacks him for “not knowing his place.” The play then focuses on Britten’s trial, where an all-white jury weighs his fate in a time and place that viewed black life as cheap and disposable. Exploring themes of racial bigotry, the flaws in the justice system, Christianity and the way it interacts with African-Americans, and the costs racism imposes on both the black community and the white allies who try to intervene, "Blues for Mister Charlie" was highly acclaimed as a call to action, and was dedicated to murdered civil rights worker Medgar Evers, as well as the children killed in the Birmingham Church Bombing.
A three-act play, "Blues for Mister Charlie" begins its first act with Reverend Meridian Henry teaching black students. They’re interrupted by Parnell James, who tells them that the police are about to arrest Lyle Britten for the murder of Richard Henry. The Reverend leaves to inform Britten about his arrest, and the students talk about life as black people in the south and the struggles they face. The scene shifts to Lyle and his wife, Jo. They’re storekeepers, and Jo is worried that Lyle may go to jail over a long-past incident. She views it as an unfortunate mistake that Richard wound up dead, and Lyle claims self-defense. He tells her not to worry. A flashback shows Richard in a confrontation with his grandmother, where they argue over the death of his mother. He suspects she was pushed down the stairs, but his grandmother, called Mother Henry, claims she fell. Richard vows to protect himself, and takes a gun with him despite his grandmother’s pleas. Richard and his friends Pete and Juanita go to Papa D’s bar, where he brags to them about his past sleeping with white women. He shows them pictures, and they warn him to hide the pictures to avoid trouble. He tells Juanita about his troubles with drugs and how he got clean. Richard leaves, and runs into Lyle outside. They exchange words, and Richard returns home and talks to his father, Reverend Henry. He decides to take the nonviolent route and hands over the gun. The flashback ends, and Parnell returns to the church to tell Reverend Henry that Lyle will be arrested. He warns him that he won’t be convicted, and urges him to let it go.
Act two opens at the home of Jo Britten, where the white townspeople have gathered. They talk about how scared they are of the black townspeople lately. Parnell James arrives, and the white people confront him about how he’s covering the upcoming trial as editor of the local newspaper. Lyle arrives, and the others mock Parnell as he suggests that there should be black people on the jury. Soon, the guests leave, and only the Brittens and Parnell remain. As Lyle leaves to take a shower, Jo confronts Parnell about her husband’s affair with Willa Mae. Willa Mae was the wife of Old Bill, a black man who Lyle had killed years earlier and escaped justice for the crime. Parnell won’t discuss it. Jo asks Parnell if he’s ever loved a black woman and he says he has. Jo wonders if Lyle actually loved Willa Mae and killed Old Bill because of this. She wonders if it’s possible that he killed Richard as well, if he was capable of murder already. Lyle comes down with their son and gives him to Jo, and Lyle and Parnell head to the store where they talk about Willa Mae. Lyle denies killing Richard, and Jo’s arrival ends the discussion. Another flashback shows Richard entering the Brittens’ store despite being warned by Lorenzo to avoid it. He tries to buy two cokes, but needs a twenty-dollar bill broken. He argues with Jo, and Lyle comes in to order him to leave. Lorenzo tries to get Richard to come out, but Richard and Lyle continue to argue. There’s an altercation, and Richard shoves Lyle to the ground, humiliating him in front of his wife. Richard leaves with Lyle shouting threats after him. The flashback ends, and Lyle accidentally describes to Parnell the circumstances of Richard’s death, something that was never printed in the paper. Parnell leaves to go to Richard’s funeral.
Act three opens with Lyle’s trial, three months after Richard’s death. The jury seated is all white, and people are called to the stand as witnesses. Jo, on the stand, lies about the events at the store and claims Richard attempted to sexually assault her. Papa D says that he saw Richard and Lyle leaving together one night while closing the bar. Lorenzo tells a simplified version of what he saw in the store, and tries to defend Richard by saying he kicked his drug habit. Lorenzo denies that Richard had naked photos of white women. Juanita tries to defend Richard’s character as well, saying that she was trying to get him to move north with her. Mother Henry and Reverend Henry both lie about Richard owning a gun, and Parnell James talks about Reverend Henry giving his son a good character. However, he won’t call Jo’s version of the story a lie, because he knows it won’t matter and would make him a marked man. Predictably, the jury finds Lyle not guilty. Another flashback shows Lyle killing a nonviolent, unarmed Richard when he refuses to apologize for the fight in the store. He then deposits his body exactly as he accidentally described to Parnell. In the courtroom, Lyle refuses to apologize to Reverend Henry for his son’s death. The play ends with the black characters leaving to hold a protest march, and a dejected Parnell choosing to join them.
James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, essayist, and social critic. He was known for his in-depth critiques of racial, sexual, and class discrimination in American society. The author of two plays, six novels, and multiple collections of poetry and essays, his life and works were the subject of the Academy Award-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro
in 2016. He is still widely read and studied today.