Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Baldwin's "Mister Charlie" Is Smothered in Protest

Cleveland Press November 30, 1966

Novelist James Baldwin's venture into the theater is a play called "Blues for Mister Charlie," and the first local performance was given at Karamu last night.

Baldwin has dipped his pen in bitterness and has relentlessly portrayed the Negro's plight. That this Negro author has written with a sense of conviction born of righteous anger, no one is likely to deny.

But, based on what he has written before and the insight he has displayed in the past, it is equally apparent that he has crudely oversimplified to the extent that he exploits the situation rather than explain it; that he has turned out a work more polemical than theatrical.

BALDWIN CHOOSES to Ignore the many facets of the racial conflict -- economic, social and political -- and concentrates on just one, that of sexuality.

In this respect, however, it reflects accurately the problem of the moderate in coping with either side in the conflict. For such a character exists in the play and indicates that moderation and intellectualizing are of no value in dealing with beliefs that are rooted in emotions and fears.

The play starts with the death of a Negro youth at the hand of a white storekeeper in a southern town. Then, in a series of flashbacks, the events leading to the murder are related. These are mixed with events that carry the play forward with occasional pauses to look back again.

The youth has returned to his home town after spending several years in the North as a musician and a drug addict. Now he no longer is willing to be deferential to the white southerner, instead provokes a quarrel with a storekeeper who has killed a Negro once before and gotten away with it and will do so again.

The first act of "Blues" is the best of it. It moves, its characters are established, the lines are drawn. After that the play goes downhill. Theatrically, it is an awkwardly-put-together affair. Time sequences are mixed and not always with reason. Speeches continue beyond the moment the point has been made.

AFTER A TIME, Baldwin becomes not more powerful, but simply louder. The characters, both white and Negro, begin to sound more and more like stereotypes.

At its best, "Blues" reflects the fears of both whites and Negroes. At its worst, it sounds like simultaneous meetings of black radicals and white radicals. Baldwin's play often is less a plea for understanding than it is a rallying cry for Negro militancy.

Where Baldwin's play may falter, the Karamu production does not. Director Dorothy Silver has given fluidity to scenes that might otherwise have been cumbersome and ill-jointed.

Herbert Kerr Jr. builds and sustains the anger of the young Negro. Ed Dean as the storekeeper is excellent, at moments ruthless, at other times bewildered that anyone would consider his beliefs anything but fair. Nolan Bell is expert in the small part of an Uncle Tom character.