Playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s last thoughts on African colonialism
"Les Blancs" | Borneidentities.com

LOS ANGELES—Les Blancs was Lorraine Hansberry’s last play, left incomplete upon her death at 34 from cancer. Her two previously produced plays, A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, both contained autobiographical inspiration. L.A.’s Rogue Machine Theatre, dedicated to presenting works never before seen in this city, is staging the local and, it must be said, long-delayed premiere.

This play opened on Broadway in 1970, five years after Hansberry died, in a version by Robert Nemiroff, her ex-husband and literary executor, who also compiled her writings for the popular stage work To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The original cast featured James Earl Jones as the lead character Tshembe. It received mixed reviews and is now rarely staged.

Les Blancs captures a moment of exploding colonial tensions and generational transition that exposes the impossible moral and political choices in societies corrupted by centuries of foreign rule, racial domination and economic exploitation. The “blancs” are brutal and rapacious, although we also see the humanitarian impulse from those who mantain a missionary clinic in the back country and try, perhaps naively, to be personally kind and helpful.

Hansberry’s title evokes the foreignness of the colonial power, but in fact no specific country is identified. The relationships she explores existed similarly in many vast lands claimed by England, France, Belgium or Portugal in that era. At the same time, the use of the French term for “the whites” suggests that the European language has already become the lingua franca for disparate peoples who found themselves included between borders established on conference tables by maps and treaties among competing European powers. In most of the African countries today, the European language remains the official language, or one of them, in part also to give those nations more of a voice on the global stage. She may also have meant her play as an answer to Jean Genet’s 1959 play Les Nègres, Clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show).

The play is set in Africa in the midst of the independence era, as colonialism is crumbling, and as the new native leadership is tentatively emerging into the vacuum. What from the European masters will they adopt? What must they discard? What indigenous traditions will they hold onto heading into modernity, and what must they leave behind? What new social and governmental institutions must they create? Will the new society leave the economy largely in place, but only change rulers? What will be the new relationship with the former metropolis, or with other international blocs?

How can anyone expect to achieve personal happiness amidst so much social upheaval?

A few years ago, on a trip to South Africa, I inquired of some young Communist Party members what was their specific tribal identity. They were Zulu, one of a dozen or so different national and linguistic groups officially recognized in the South African Constitution as entitled to full and equal recognition. I asked if SACP meetings are conducted in any of these native languages, and if party literature was translated into them. They said, No, they weren’t, perhaps only some slogans or chants for demonstrations. And how about their own personal identity—Did they observe Zulu customs and practices? Yes, they said, but only weddings and funerals in their home town, and not much more. In fact, they went on to say, throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, with the opening of mines, townships and vineyards, and the migration of workers far from their homelands, languages have become less integral, words are frequently exchanged and incorporated, and a kind of pidgin has emerged that borrows from all the spoken tongues of the country. The force of tribalism declines with each passing year.

According to the play producers, “The time is yesterday, today, and tomorrow—but not very long after that.” This anarchic period cannot last forever. Yet even if formal colonialism has largely ended in the world, neocolonial relationships still must be managed in many parts of the world, and we still see the aftereffects of European and American imperialism in newspaper headlines every day. In fact, Les Blancs contains numerous references to race and murder in the American South, so it is surely meant as a commentary on the U.S. condition as well. As the director, Gregg T. Daniel, remarks, “Hansberry was not seeking to demonize one side or the other but to examine the cost to all of us of systemic bigotry, racial intolerance and discrimination.”

Before turning her attention to the stage, Hansberry worked on the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign, and then for the Pan-Africanist newspaper Freedom, alongside publisher Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. She became knowledgable not only about the U.S. civil rights movement, but also about the global anti-colonial movement. In her reading and travels to international forums, she became acquainted with many rising intellectuals from Africa and the Caribbean. She wrote in support of the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, criticizing the mainstream press for its biased coverage. Much of her work during the 1950s concerned the African struggle for liberation, the appeal of nationalism and its painful contradictions.

Hansberry shows her sympathies with several of the characters who personify the different social relations in society. We have the three brothers: protagonist Tshembe Matoseh (Desean Kevin Terry), a conflicted expat now living in London with his Caucasian wife and newborn son, returning home for his father’s funeral; Abioseh Matoseh (Matt Orduña), who is taking his final vows as a Catholic priest; and young Eric (Aric Floyd), no last name given, a clearly misdirected teenager who is noticeably lighter in skin tone than his two brothers. We do learn by hearsay of his parentage, but there is no cathartic scene between biological father and son that theatrically expresses this relationship. I can’t help thinking that Hansberry would have resolved this problem had she lived to complete the script.

Other African characters include Peter (Amir Abdullah) and Ngago (Jonathan P. Sims), who are drawn to the anti-white ideology that formed part of some African independence movements. A largish cast of villagers rounds out the black cast, plus a wonderful percussionist (Jelani Blunt) who plays almost continuously to heighten the mood, and a dancer (Shari Gardner), who inevitably recalls the African dances that Beneatha Younger performs in A Raisin in the Sun.

The whites include the clinic doctors Marta Gotterling (Fiona Hardingham) and Willy DeKoven (Joel Swetow), with varying degrees of optimism about the future of their rural practice; Madame Neilson (Anne Gee Byrd), aging wife of the founder of the mission 40 years ago; Major George Rice (Bill Brochtrup), the local colonial military commander of several other soldiers; and Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth), a presumptuous American writer fascinated by the Neilson mission and eager to publish his eyewitness report on Africa’s growing political crisis.

Another “character” in this production is Jeff Gardner’s soundscape, the encroaching jungle that will soon envelop the plucky little mission, leaving behind perhaps only a few anthropological shards in a bit of a cliché underlining the return to savagery once the Europeans leave. At the same time, however, that soundscape also includes bullets that murder “terrorists” and overhead helicopter action (both, we are told, compliments of the U.S.A.), signaling that the Western presence will likely be felt for a long time to come wherever there is the need to protect access to precious resources—oil, tungsten, copper, coal, diamonds, cacao or coffee.

The stage set of the mission compound, constructed of wood pallets, is also a standout, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz.

In one way I felt the script leaves out an important aspect of history: The essential issue is the centuries-old European subjugation of the African peoples. But in the 20th century a new factor emerged: the new socialist bloc of nations, led at first by the Soviet Union, followed after WWII by other European nations, as well as China and Cuba, supporting global anti-colonial struggles. Those countries provided advanced educational opportunities to thousands of young “colonials”—and yes, sometimes military training, too—in the hope that they would constitute the next generation of Africans leading their nations into the modern world. By the 1960s the independence movements had become inextricably entwined in the Cold War matrix, and of this we hear nothing. The USSR no longer exists, of course, but that historical context cannot be excised. Perhaps Hansberry’s final revision might have taken it into account.

For several reasons this is an experience theatergoers should not miss. It is the final work of one of our great American playwrights, who reportedly considered this her most important play. And it is so powerfully staged and acted. Rogue Machine Theatre has given it its full due. This is a rare and memorable experience.

Les Blancs plays through July 3 at the Rogue Machine Theatre on Sat. and Mon. at 8 pm, and Sun. at 3 pm, at 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029. For tickets and information, call (855) 585-5185 or go to www.roguemachinetheatre.com.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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