The playwright Lorraine Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 when she was only 34, leaving behind incomplete drafts of “Les Blancs” (“The Whites”), a play she had begun writing in 1960, soon after “A Raisin in the Sun” made her famous.
Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, took it up where she left off, and his adaptation premiered on Broadway in 1970, starring a young James Earl Jones as an African man torn between his countrymen and their European colonial overlords. It got mixed reviews, ran only briefly and has seldom been staged since; Rogue Machine Theatre’s current revival is its Los Angeles premiere.
Perhaps this history doesn’t compel you to call for tickets, and descriptions of “Les Blancs” as important and ambitious probably won’t sweeten the deal. By the time I tell you that Hansberry was moving away from the naturalism of “Raisin” toward expressionism and the heightened reality of classical tragedy in “Les Blancs,” and that the script has been called “didactic” and “a rebuke to colonialism,” you may already be in your pajamas, deep into a Netflix binge. I settled into my seat unprepared for the fierce, knotty rhetoric of Hansberry’s script and the intense theatricality of Gregg T. Daniel’s production.
The very atmosphere in the theater evokes Africa. I think the air conditioning was actually broken on opening night, but it wasn’t just the heat: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set, slats of wood lashed together, summons the humble mission in the fictional African country where the story is set; Jeff Gardner’s sound design suggests the jungle wildlife seething and chattering on all sides. A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, plays Gardner’s original music on a variety of instruments. As the lights dim, a dancer (Shari Gardner) performs an African dance. The play’s characters enter behind her, and black and white face off in a tense tableau.
Then the story begins: American journalist Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth) has just arrived in Africa to write about the respected 40-year-old mission and its founder, the Rev. Neilson.
Neilson is away on some unspecified errand, so Morris chats with the clinic’s two doctors, the idealistic Marta Gotterling (Fiona Hardingham) and the disillusioned Willy DeKoven (Joel Swetow), as well as Neilson’s wife, Madame Neilson (Anne Gee Byrd). Madame used to be close to the local tribespeople, she says wistfully. She taught the children to read and spent hours with the women, but then something went wrong. Relations between black and white are growing hostile. The bigoted Major George Rice (a mustachioed Bill Brochtrup) arrives to report that a white family has been murdered by black “terrorists” and that he’s imposing a curfew. As night falls, a drumbeat rises from the village, signaling that a tribal elder, Abioseh, has died.
The scene then shifts to Abioseh’s hut, where his three adult sons have reunited. They grew up on the mission, and their identities have been shaped by it. The eldest, confusingly also named Abioseh (Matt Orduña), has become a Catholic priest. The youngest, Eric (Aric Floyd), who is widely known not to be Old Abioseh’s son but the mixed-race child of rape, drinks too much. And then there is Tshembe (Desean Kevin Terry), our protagonist, who wants to bury his father and go back home to his wife and newborn son in Europe. He certainly has no intention of commanding a violent nationalist uprising. But Africa has her own plans for him.
It’s a talky play. The journalist, who seems oddly unalarmed by the frequent reports of murders, loves a good chin-wag and keeps trying to chum up to Tshembe, who wants none of him. Their passionate, heady debates feel incompletely worked through. A few more drafts might have made the jarring climax — which upset audiences decades ago with its unambiguous endorsement of violence against white people (reflecting the early 1960s influence of Malcolm X) — a bit more plausible.
That “Les Blancs” remains unfinished is just one of the tragedies of Hansberry’s premature death, but Rogue Machine’s vivid, well-acted production brings her work to life.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
When: Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays; ends July 3
Information: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
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