‘Blues for Mister Charlie’: James Baldwin’s theatrical ode to civil-rights martyr Medgar Evers

James Baldwin’s bracing “Blues for Mister Charlie” — dedicated to his murdered, civil-rights-activist friend Medgar Evers — gets a stirring production in Seattle churches and high schools.

In the upstairs foyer of Emerald City Bible Fellowship church, just a quick walk down Rainier Ave. from the Othello light rail station, you can find a list of Christian jokes on a laminated wall poster.

How do we know Adam was the world’s fastest runner? “He was first in the human race.” What’s the best way to study the Bible? “Luke into it!” Who was the Bible’s best baby-sitter? “David. He rocked Goliath into a deep sleep.”

Running, soul-searching, death: As audience members walked past the poster and into the church’s nave (bare, except for a purple flag with a white cross), the jokes had an eerie resonance with the powerful, occasionally shout-provoking production that was about to begin.

Theater review

‘Blues for Mister Charlie’

Sept. 14-17 by The Williams Project, next performances at Franklin High School, 3013 St. Mt. Baker Blvd., Seattle; $0-$50 (thewilliamsproject.org).

Last weekend, director Ryan Purcell of The Williams Project walked onto the stage, paused in front of the audience, and said: “Some of you came here because you’re into theater, and you want to watch this it theater. Some of you came because this is your church and you want to watch it like church. That’s fine. Do you.”

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And they did.

Unlike, say, watching a Samuel Beckett production with a crowd of silent people in the dark, the audience at James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mister Charlie” could watch and hear each other react to the 1964 play about race and violence in a small Southern town. And when the characters delivered gut-punching lines about racism and injustice, they got some earnest “amen”s. The audience felt more present, more invested, than any I’ve sat with in a long time — and it gave the performances extra fire.

Baldwin dedicated “Blues” — about a young African American man gunned down by a white supremacist in a small Southern town and the subsequent trial that put a magnifying glass on the community’s racial rifts — to his friend Medgar Evers, a civil-rights activist assassinated in Mississippi, plus Evers’ widow and children.

“Blues,” with its spare staging but excellent performances, inspired a wide spectrum…

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