Blues for Mr Charlie, Tricycle Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Tricycle's previous presentation, Guantanamo, focused on the plight of prisoners who have been denied the right to any form of trial, fair or otherwise. This theatre is now one of the partners in a powerful New Wolsey/Talawa revival of James Baldwin's Blues for Mr Charlie, a play set in the Deep South in 1964 in a society where, if an injustice done to a black person were ever to come to the attention of a court, the trial would be a travesty because of the all-white jury.

The Tricycle's previous presentation, Guantanamo, focused on the plight of prisoners who have been denied the right to any form of trial, fair or otherwise. This theatre is now one of the partners in a powerful New Wolsey/Talawa revival of James Baldwin's Blues for Mr Charlie, a play set in the Deep South in 1964 in a society where, if an injustice done to a black person were ever to come to the attention of a court, the trial would be a travesty because of the all-white jury.

Baldwin based the piece on the landmark 1955 case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who, while visiting relations in Mississippi, made risky boasts about how it was possible to date white girls in the north. He ended up beaten to death and mutilated by the storekeeper whose wife he had allegedly cheeked. The trial of the accused and his accomplice was in every sense a whitewash. The acquitted pair even exploited the double-jeopardy rule to sell their story to a magazine, unrepentantly declaring that the boy had brought the murder on himself by claiming, throughout the beating, to be the equal of his assailants.

In a drama that eloquently shifts between the build-up to the killing and its aftermath, Baldwin reinvents adolescent Emmett as the young adult Richard (beautifully played here by a cocky yet sensitive Michael Price). He's the minister's son who, after eight eventful years in the north, returns home. Richard is appalled by the unreconstructed southern code and the servility it requires of black people. To his grandmother's contention that you can't ascribe all the evil in the world to whites, he ripostes that "they are responsible for all the misery that I've ever seen and that's good enough for me". This man, who carries trophy photographs of the white women he has pleasured, embarks on a mission to gain self-respect, but it pulls him in contrary directions. On the one hand, he seeks a stable relationship with Juanita (lovely Sharon Duncan-Brewster), his childhood soulmate. On the other, he seems impelled towards provoking a showdown with the oppressors.

Paulette Randall's vibrant, splendidly cast production boasts a terrific, fluency-enhancing design by Libby Watson. The slatted walls of the black minister's church can swing inwards and transform the setting into a variety of split-stage, racially divided locations. There are, it is true, patches of implausibility in the play. One of the main characters is Parnell James (excellent Rolf Saxon), the moneyed editor of a progressive white newspaper that is denounced as communist by the locals. The balance of the piece (eventually tipped in a telling way) depends upon our believing that Parnell is an equal intimate of both the accused (Barnaby Kay on fine swaggeringly insecure form) and of the grief-stricken father (extraordinarily moving Ray Shell). This scenario certainly helps Baldwin to dramatise the compromises of the liberal conscience, but at the expense of leaving certain holes. If he's such a buddy of the minister, why, for example, did Parnell not try to exert some friendly moderating influence on his troubled son?

The moral force of the play manages to sweep most of these quibbles before it. Randall's revival is warmly welcome and timely too, coming in the year when the FBI has reopened the case of Emmett Till.

To 10 July (020-7328 1000)

Comments