New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT), the new professional theater company of City College of New York (CCNY), will present "Blues for Mister Charlie" by James Baldwin, directed by Eugene Nesmith, from June 23 to July 17 at Aaron Davis Hall, located at W. 135th Street and Convent Avenue, Manhattan (Hamilton Heights). This will be the play's first major New York presentation since its Broadway debut in 1964. The timely production, designed to entertain and provoke, will re-imagine Baldwin's notions of race, class and gender relations, casting actors beyond racial lines to present a modern complex picture of American culture today.
"Blues for Mister Charlie" is based on the historic case of the murder of Emmett Till, a young black man who was killed in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman. The play follows a cyclical structure, opening and ending with the crime while utilizing a series of flashbacks to illuminate the social, racial, sexual and religious forces behind the young man's death. "Mister Charlie" is a slang term for a white man. The murder victim, named Richard Henry in the play, is a pastor's son who has returned from Chicago to the segregated Southern town of his birth, aiming to start over and recover from drug addiction. A shop owner named Lyle Britten, a bigot who shoots him and throws his body in the weeds, is acquitted by an all-white jury. The play forthrightly exposes the wounds of racism and its toll on both black and white members of the polarized community who attempt to intervene, notably the publisher of the town's newspaper.
The play, Baldwin's second, was dedicated to the memory of Medgar Evers, his widow and his children, and to the memory of the dead children of Birmingham. Reviewing the Broadway production in 1964, Howard Taubman wrote in the New York Times, "James Baldwin has written a play with fires of fury in its belly, tears of anguish in its eyes and a roar of protest in its throat" and compared the play to Clifford Odets' "Waiting for Lefty" thirty years before.
Director Eugene Nesmith, founding Artistic Director of NHAT, told the New York Times (in an article published May 30, 2011) that he chose "Blues for Mister Charlie" for the troupe's inaugural production because "a lot of the issues we were dealing with in the '60s--the racial, the economic, the gender issues--are coming around again." His innovation is to mount the play with a multi-ethnic cast, causing the audience to challenge its perceptions of race and prejudice in the more nuanced mindset of today.
The actors are a mixture of New York working professionals, recent graduates of CUNY's undergraduate theater program, and student actors. The "working professionals" are Kelvin Hale, Earl Griffin, Dennis Jordan, Billy Lake, Johnnie Mae, and Reginald L. Wilson. The recent graduates are Amanda Figueiredo, Brian Reese, Franceli Chapman (in the featured role of Juanita, Richard's fiancee), Leroy Graham, Johnny Maldonado, Jasmine Romero, and Chandler Wild. The student actors are Lucas Babits-Feinerman, Trevania Campbell, Dorothy Davis, Katherine Guenther, Stephan Macari (in the featured role of Lyle Britten, the killer), Nathaniel Manning, Edwin Polanco, and Tiffany Warren (alternating in the featured role of Juanita).
Set design is by Heather Wolensky. Lighting design is by Brian Aldous. Costume design is by Mary Myers. Assistant Director is Naya Tabie Johnson. Dramaturg is Chris Rempfer. Production Stage Manager is Tara Nachtigall.
New Haarlem Arts Theatre (NHAT), a new professional theater company in residence at Aaron Davis Hall, is producing its first season this summer. In its productions, emerging professional actors from the CCNY community will work alongside the most daring, imaginative, and creative artists in their field on a high professional level. The troupe has been founded by Eugene Nesmith, with crucial support from CCNY, to establish a professional theater uptown that will rival the best college-based repertories in the country. It aims to produce bold theatrical works that express the true history, culture, and diversity of America. It also aims to attract audiences from around the city to Harlem again.
NHAT is probably the only theater in New York City to offer free parking. Theatergoers can take advantage of on-site parking free in the South Campus Parking Lot, located next to Aaron Davis Hall with entrance on 133rd Street and Convent Ave.
The next production of NHAT, July 27 to August 21, will be the first major NY production of "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" since its Broadway debut in 1999. This musical revue, written by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman, will be directed by Alfred Preisser and will feature well-known guest artists. More info will be forthcoming on NHAT's website, www.newhaarlemartstheatre.org.
Eugene Nesmith, director of "Blues for Mister Charlie," is the Founding Artistic Director of New Haarlem Arts Theatre and the Chair of CCNY's Theatre Department. Mr. Nesmith approaches this new cultural entity with over 25 years of experience in professional theatre as an actor, director and educator, and with a passion to bring great live performance to the community of Harlem. For years he was a member of New York Theatre Workshop's Usual Suspects Group. He was selected to be a member of Lincoln Center's first Directors Lab. Most recently, he was selected to be a member of ATHE's Theatre Leadership Institute. Mr. Nesmith has directed various productions at regional theaters and Off Off-Broadway theaters in New York City. He has published critical essays in The Village Voice and in such scholarly journals as Yale Theater, American Theatre Magazine, and Black Theatre News, to name a few. His critical writings can also be found in such book length projects as "A Source Book on Black Performance," edited by Anna Marie Bean, and "Black Comedy," edited by Pamela Faith Jackson. Mr. Nesmith has also been a judge for The Village Voice Obie Awards and a panelist for the Theater Grants and Policy Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts. Most recently, he served as a speaker and interviewed James Earl Jones at the International Indian Diaspora Film Festival in New York City. As an actor he has performed in various roles Off Broadway and in Regional Theaters, in such roles as Brutus in "Julius Caesar" with Shakespeare and Company, Aaron in "Titus Andronicus" with Target Margin Theater and Baylen in "Glenn Garry Glen Ross" for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. In 1993, Mr. Nesmith was co-founder with Victoria Norman of The African-American Theatre Program at the University of Louisville.
"Blues for Mister Charlie" will be presented June 23 to July 17 at Aaron Davis Hall, 160 Convent Ave. (at W. 135th St.). Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:00 PM with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM. Tickets $25 general admission, $15 students and seniors and $10 with CUNY ID. To buy tickets, visit www.newhaarlemartstheatre.org or call SMARTTIX, (212) 868-4444.