Blues for Mister Charlie is a play in three acts by James Baldwin. It revolves around the murder of Richard Henry, a black man, committed by Lyle Britten, a white store owner. The play addresses the theme of institutional racism and injustice African American community faced in the 1960s United States. This post will discuss the drama, two significant scenes from the first act, and its key characters.
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The first act of Blues for Mister Charlie introduces the readers to its characters and establishes the main event discussed in the play: Richard’s murder. One of the most crucial scenes in the drama is the conversation between Lyle, his wife, Jo, and the local journalist, Parnell James, during which the latter notifies the Brittens of Lyle’s impending arrest. Lyle shows little concern when informed about it, saying to his wife and friend that “they’ll never convict me” (Baldwin, 2013, p. 12). Another crucial scene is the first interaction between Lyle and Richards in Papa D’s bar. As Richard and his friend Juanita dance, Lyle bumps into her, causing a minor altercation (Baldwin, 2013). It is also revealed that despite living in the same town, black and white communities led separate lives, avoiding each other. Thus, the incident begs the question, why would Lyle behave this confrontationally in the “black place”? Overall, the two scenes provide readers with the context for the central conflict and illustrate the institutional racism prevailing in the country.
Throughout these scenes, the character of Lyle is partially confusing. He praises Papa D, a black bar owner, to his wife, stating that he respects him more than any white man. Why does he visit his establishment knowing that Papa D’s customers would not welcome him there? He wants to make his store “more colorful” as his regular customers do not bring enough business anymore (Baldwin, 2013, p. 8). Thus, Lyle believes in his superiority to black people but is prepared to deal with them if it is beneficial.
In summary, James Baldwin masterfully depicts racial conflict and persistent institutional discrimination in the Blues for Mister Charlie. Lyle, the murderer, knows that even with a history of violence, he will not be convicted for the murder of Richard, a black man. As the representative of the oppressive white majority, he is depicted as a man who loathes people who are different from him but is still prepared to profit from them when needed.
Baldwin, J. (2013). Blues for Mister Charlie: A play. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.