As dozens of dedicated students shuffled out of the frigid winter air and into the Wharton Center on the evening of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the cast and crew of “Blues for Mr. Charlie” were warming up for a very important preview of the Theatre Department’s latest production.
According to co-chairs Paulette Granberry Russell, senior advisor to the president for diversity and director of Affirmative Action, Compliance and Monitoring and psychology senior Kiara Hill, the 2005 Commemorative Celebration Planning Committee was looking for a new way to honor the legacy of King.
Loosely based on the racially motivated and brutal kidnapping and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi, “Blues for Charlie” by James Baldwin addresses many of the issues and struggles that King experienced first-hand during the Civil Rights movement. Written as a protest play, many of the scenes are flashbacks that recount the battles that were all too familiar prior to the 1960s and unfortunately continue to seep into today’s society.
“I’m very happy that the committee decided to do something different this year,” said Director Lamont Clegg. “I believe the message of this play is ideal for the day we have set aside to honor Dr. King.”
The cast began their two-scene preview with the opening minutes of the play. Reverend Meridian Henry paces back and forth in his Mississippi church instructing college students on how to remain non-violent in the face of persecution and taunting. In the scene the actors role-play the ugly scenarios that they might encounter with accusations filled with derogatory terms and punctuated by pushing and shoving. Henry’s character, played by human biology senior Alan Sloan, is a revolutionary figure much like Dr. King. While preparing the students for their peaceful march, he is also coping with the murder of his son Richard whose funeral is scheduled for the next morning.
The second scene the cast presented comes later in the play was a sharp contrast from what the audience saw only moments earlier. This time the action centers on Henry and local newspaper editor Parnell James, played by mathematics junior Jared Shirkey. Henry has become frustrated with the increasingly violent social atmosphere and begins to question himself as well as his ideals and his faith. James steps in as Henry’s lone white ally and as the Reverend pushes James to help him root out Richard’s killer, the editor backs down from because he does not want to betray his sources or his friends.
After the scenes closed, the cast and crew reconvened on stage for a “talk back” session to help audience members process the complex material they had just seen. Many of the questions posed by the audience dealt with cast’s preparation techniques and wanting to know how the actors became comfortable with the negatively charged dialog they deliver and vile characters they embody each day in rehearsals.
“I like to think that when we’re on stage we’re doing a job,” said theatre senior Aaron Dean who plays murderer Lyle Britten in the productions. “We’re not those characters,” he added emphatically.
Other student actors offered their methods of examining and breaking down stereotypes and used humor as a tool in becoming comfortable with such weighty issues. However, at the heart of all the discussion were the wrenching messages steeped in real historical events and a prevailing feeling of hope for the future.
“One of the reasons the department chose this show is to think about issues we don’t like to think about and don’t want to think about,” Clegg said.
“This time in our lives is all about learning. This is the time we should take advantage of it. We’re practically being handed this opportunity,” echoed Malik Williams who plays the slain Richard.
“Blues for Mr. Charlie” opens at the Auditorium’s Fairchild Theatre on February 3 and runs Thursdays through Sundays until February 13. For more information visit www.WhartonCenter.com.

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