Sunday, July 17, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Blues for Mister Charlie

The City College of New York’s (CCNY’s) New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT) is off to an auspicious start.  The brainchild of Eugene Nesmith, Chairman of CCNY’s Theatre Department and NHAT’s founder and Artistic Director, NHAT launched its first production, Blues for Mister Charlie, this month.  We saw the play’s final performance today and were greatly impressed.

Written by James Baldwin, Blues for Mister Charlie was first produced on Broadway in 1964 and this ambitious NHAT revival, directed by Nesmith, is one of the few major productions of the play staged since then.  It is based loosely on the historic real life case of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black youth who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 and whose white racist murderers, although known, were freed by an all white jury.   In Baldwin’s play, the black murder victim, Richard Henry (Reginald L. Wilson) is the son of a pastor, Meridian Henry (Earl Griffin).  His murderer, a bigoted white shop owner, Lyle Britten (Stephen Macari), is similarly acquitted of his heinous crime by an all white jury.

Baldwin did a brilliant job in the creation of his characters, Richard apparently being something of a composite of Emmett Till and Malcolm X, while his father, Meridian, seemed an amalgam of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other non-violent civil rights leaders.  But while Baldwin deserves the bulk of the credit for having created these characters, both Nesmith and the actors portraying these characters are also deserving of accolades for bringing them to life in this production.

The cast of about 20 was equally divided between professional actors and CCNY theatre students and the entire ensemble did so good a job that it was nearly impossible to discern without reading the program who were the professionals and who the students.  A few in the cast were so outstanding, however, that they deserve to be singled out for special praise.  In addition to Wilson, Griffin and Macari, mentioned above, they would include Franceli Chapman as Juanita Harmon, Kevin Hale as Papa D, Johnnie Mae as Mother Henry and, as the actor who came closest to stealing the show, Dennis Jordan in the role of the conflicted white Southern liberal, Parnell James.

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