The American River College theater department is commemorating this year’s Black History Month with a production of “Blues for Mister Charlie,” which premieres Friday.
Loosely based on the real-life 1955 murder of a black 14-year-old, Emmett Till, playwright James Baldwin originally dedicated “Blues” to “the memory of Medgar Evers, and his widow and his children, and to the memory of the dead children of Birmingham.”
Evers, a civil rights activist, was assassinated in 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizens’ Council, one year before “Blues” was produced.
This year will mark the 60 year anniversary of Till’s murder, which was committed by two white men after Till had been accused of flirting with a white woman, Carolyn Bryant.
Till’s death helped spark the civil rights movement in the U.S., when after being acquitted of the kidnapping and murder, and thus protected against double jeopardy, Roy Bryant, husband to Carolyn, and Roy’s half brother J.W. Milam, publicly admitted to committing the crimes.
The play, in three acts, centers around the murder of Richard Henry, a black youth in a small town. His accused killer, Lyle Britten, denies the murder, and the town is thrown into a tempest of confusion and anger.
Director and ARC faculty member Samuel Williams, who has a well-established history of tackling tense racial issues in his pieces, has been rehearsing his cast since January, and is always one step ahead of the actors, according to cast members Wilysha Walton and Raven Jones.
“Sometimes you don’t always understand what he’s doing, but once you do, it just makes sense,” said Walton, who plays one of the students of Meridian Henry, father to the slain Richard.
“Sam has a very clear vision of what he wants and a lot of the times we don’t know what he’s doing when he’s doing things, but once we get there it’s not what we expected, and it’s a lot better than what we thought,” said Jones.
Jones, who plays Britten’s wife Jo, described the play as “soulful, very passionate, and very fast.”
“It’s not one of those plays where you’re sitting there wondering what will happen next,” said Jones.
Jones also described her character as a “picture perfect housewife,” but one who is “very sex-starved, and very sassy and needy.”
With subject matter so charged, and in the wake of societal movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, “Blues” promises to make viewers think about how our country has changed since the beginning of the civil rights movement.