Book Review

Blues For Mister Charlie by James Baldwin

a sad play from JB the master

I haven’t read a play in a while, but I saw this rather attractive edition of a James Baldwin piece (subtitled, descriptively, as A Drama In Three Acts) in a hip Brooklyn bookstore last month and decided that I had to have it. Did I mention I was being hip in New York, lol?

James Baldwin, of course, lived in hip New York for a long time, and he’s probably the writer whose treatment of that city I have returned to most frequently over the last couple of years. Blues For Mister Charlie – a short, dark, political, powerful, play – was completed in 1964, though it doesn’t say in the edition I have whether or not it was also performed that year. I imagine it musta been, right? Baldwin was a big deal and this drama is not fucking around: it’s harrowing, intense, violent, cruel and speaks directly and uncompromisingly about the ludicrously lax standards that the law courts of America applied to the perpetrators of violence against black men, an awful situation that – disgracefully, disgustingly – is still fucking relevant today.

In a speech towards the end of the play, a left-wing, black preacher in his late forties/early fifties laments the violent, racist, murder of his adult son. The preacher movingly speaks about having been a firebrand because he’d hoped that his rhetoric and spoken politics would have changed the world so his son would have been safe from a fate such as the one he found. One imagines Baldwin, aware of the inevitable crushing of this character’s hope and the continuing slow progress of the civil rights movement, would have been unsurprised, though disappointed, that almost sixty years later, the world we live in has still failed to repair the terrible results of centuries of unrepentant racist government policies and personal behaviours.

Baldwin, though far from a pessimist, didn’t see essential change occurring any time soon (in the mid-sixties), but he must’ve believed that incremental progress was possible and was secure once it had happened, right? This, sadly, was not to be.

The world’s a fucked-up mess and the ramifications of the financial crisis and the rightwards-shift of the global political scene has torn back feelings of safety and lots of hard-won privileges. Will things ever go back to the point where most people feel things are “getting better”? I don’t know, but I’m not optimistic about it. I think most people are shits and all the shits have realised that being a shit is normal and now they’re all being shits together without a single modicum of regret. I’m not saying that everybody is awful, but I am definitely saying that there are more people who are awful than people who aren’t.

Blues For Mister Charlie is set in a small town in the American South and is about the murder of Richard, a young black man who has just returned from several years spent in New York. There, in the big city, he had some success as a musician, but fucked, drank and [verb for taking heroin]-ed himself to the point of breaking. He’s returned south to detox, sort himself out, and try and move on. Unfortunately, though, his liberal politics and unwillingness to behave as if he is inferior to anyone just because of his race infuriates a local racist, who eventually murders him, racistly.

There is a white man who is sympathetic to the black community in the town, and though he uses his influence to discover the truth of the murder (which the audience knows from the first scene), he doesn’t use this influence until after Lyle, the killer, has been found innocent by a white jury in a state where double jeopardy holds a lorra sway, so it’s legally redundant information.

It’s not a murder-mystery: we see the murder before we understand the specifics of the situation, but we of course already know the motive: plain, dull, ignorant, racism. The tragedy is, yes, this individual’s death and the reasons – or lack of reasons – behind it, and the tragedy too is that this narrative isn’t unfamiliar, isn’t unbelievable, isn’t stopping, isn’t un-American.

Baldwin writes white men and women and black men and women who are complex characters: nobody is idealised here, nobody. However bad or good the majority of a person’s behaviour seems, no character lacks a moment where the audience sees them evoked into something beyond the allegorical. These are people, not ideas: this is a human play, not a metaphor. It is political because life and death – especially violent death – is always political. It’s an engaging and moving drama, but – of course – as it’s a play it’s all dialogue, so we don’t get to enjoy the gorgeous prose of Baldwin when he’s writing as himself. That’s a ludicrous critique to make, I know, but make it I shall: it’s great, but Baldwin writing in other people’s voices. I want more Baldwin. I think I have a little Penguin of some of his non-fiction somewhere. I’ll try and find it. Failing that, I’ll scour the shelves next time I’m book-buying. Right now, I’m gonna go walk my dog.

A good read.


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