This article is excerpted with permission from You Mean It or You Don’t: James Baldwin’s Radical Challenge, 2022 Broadleaf Books.
IN 1958, Greek American film and theater director Elia Kazan asked James Baldwin to write a play. Specifically, Kazan recommended that he write a script based on the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Money, Miss. The result was “Blues for Mister Charlie,” a play that proved to be one of the most intimate, gut-wrenching, and emotionally exhausting experiences of Baldwin’s artistic life.
As Baldwin worked on the script during the summer of 1963, he received the crushing news that his friend Medgar Evers had been killed. Evers was a civil rights activist and U.S. Army veteran who served as Mississippi state field secretary for the NAACP. Baldwin deeply admired Evers and later wrote, “When he died, something entered into me which I cannot describe, but it was then that I resolved that nothing under heaven would prevent me from getting this play done.” “Blues for Mister Charlie” opened at the Actors Studio in New York in April of the following year, 1964.
The play opens with the murder of Richard, a young Black boy in a small Southern town, which closely resembles Till’s murder. There is no suspense: Lyle Britten, the white owner of the local general store, has shot Richard and dumped his body outside of town. The grieving family includes Rev. Meridian Henry, Richard’s father and the nonviolent leader of the local Black church; Meridian’s mother (and Richard’s grandmother), Mother Henry; and Juanita, a young Black student who loved Richard. Parnell James, the white liberal editor of a local newspaper, tries to appease all parties, unsuccessfully.