James Baldwin did not want to write this play…at first. He thought American Theatre to be, “…a series, merely, of commercial speculations, stale, repetitious, and timid” (Baldwin 4). In other words, he thought it to be much like today’s Hollywood: the same money making melodramatic plots that are hashed-out over and over again so no one has to gamble on projects that push the envelope. It was not until his friend, Medgar Evers, took him through the back-woods of Mississippi to investigate the 1955 murder of a young Black teen named Emmett Till, and the later death of Evers, that Baldwin decided to write his first play. Baldwin bore witness to Evers’ inspections and hushed inquiries all night as they were followed by state troopers. Years later, these memories would compel Baldwin to finish Blues for Mister Charlie (4-6).
The original Broadway production premiered at the ANTA Playhouse owned by The American National Theater and Academy in 1964 (IBDB). The theater still stands to this day, but due to the plethora of times it has changed hands, it is now known as the August Wilson Theatre after its most recently deceased owner. Previews began on Tuesday, April 14th, just before the spring season on Broadway. Previews are a productions way of testing out a show before officially opening. Technical and acting changes may still be made and, in worse case scenarios, a show may be stopped mid-performance to fix something. For this reason, the tickets are usually cheaper. After 8 previews, the show of the show officially opened a week later on the Thursday the 23rd. The production lasted the whole season and closed on Saturday, August 29th of the same year with a total of 148 performances. This is not considered a particularly long run. Typically, a much more beloved show would last at least 400 performances, which is roughly a year. The show had to be moved out to make way for the theater’s next production of Jean Anouilh’s Traveller without Luggage, which lasted a grand total of 44 performances.
Though the show did not run long enough for any actor to make a career out of playing there character, the original cast was star studded! Diana Sands who played Richard’s fiancée, Juanita, had just won the 1963 Theatre World Award for her performance in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright. Of the entire Blues cast, she was the only one to walk away with a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Two years later she earned one more nomination, this time for Best Actress in a Play, for originating the role of Doris in The Owl and the Pussycat (IBDB). Sadly, she died a few years later from cancer (IMDB).
Some actors better known today were also in this production. Pat Hingle, who played the Parnell, was a seasoned, Tony nominated actor by the time he started in Blues. He continued on in theatre and screen (IBDB). He is probably best known by today’s generation as playing ‘Commissioner James Gordon’ in the 90s Batman Trilogy: Batman, Batman Returns, and...