"Having arguments about race relations isn't something a lot of theaters leap toward," says director Marion McClinton.
Not so Center Stage, which not only doesn't shy away from plays about race but actually embraces them. For the past several seasons, the theater has staged two plays -- one-third of its line-up -- with racial themes and by black authors.
The latest is Lorraine Hansberry's controversial and rarely produced drama about an imaginary African country on the brink of revolution, "Les Blancs," which opens Wednesday.
McClinton uses the words "epic" and "operatic" to describe the 17-character production, which is supported by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Indeed, the play's grand scale is one reason the director believes it isn't produced more often.
The theater's proposal for the NEA grant stated, in part: "Center Stage is not a purveyor of theatrical reassurance. 'Les Blancs' is a challenging 'art' piece that deals with the issues we're interested in presenting to all the communities of Baltimore -- a city as riven by race as any other in America."
"[Artistic director Irene Lewis] wants to engage the community that the theater is in. Irene believes that [being inclusive] is the future of the American theater," says McClinton, a playwright as well as director, who has been an associate artist at Center Stage since 1992. Center Stage's initiative in this area is so important to him that last season he turned down an off-Broadway offer to work here.
Charlotte Stoudt, literary associate at Center Stage and dramaturg for "Les Blancs," adds, "We feel if these are among the issues of the day, and if theater's going to have any relevance, we're going to gravitate to these pieces."
A play set in Africa might seem far removed from the issues of an American inner city, but "Les Blancs" is also indirectly about race relations in this country.
"It's about us absolutely. Of course it's about us. [Hansberry] was very interested in the connection between African-Americans and Africans," says Stoudt.
Hansberry, who died at age 34 in 1965, remains best known for her 1959 domestic drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," which catapulted her to national prominence as the first black woman playwright on Broadway.
Debut in 1970
She began working on "Les Blancs" in 1960, considering it "potentially her most important play," according to the writings of her late ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff. After being diagnosed with cancer in 1963, Hansberry took the manuscript with her during various hospital stays. But the script was unfinished when she died two years later. Nemiroff, who was also her literary executor, completed the play, which made its debut on Broadway in 1970.
The niece of William Leo Hansberry, an internationally recognized scholar of African antiquity, and a student of W. E. B. DuBois, Lorraine Hansberry had a lifelong interest in Africa.
In a speech two weeks before the opening of "A Raisin in the Sun," she said: " the ultimate destiny and aspirations of the African peoples and 20 million American Negroes are inextricably and magnificently bound up together forever."
McClinton makes the connection more specific. "The warfare going on in the black communities, gang to gang, is very tribal. It's all about being able to determine your own destiny, whether you're in Baltimore or in the Congo," he says.
Hansberry described the time period of "Les Blancs" as "yesterday, today and tomorrow," and McClinton marvels at the script's relevance three decades later. "The end of the play is very much where a lot of African countries are today -- brother against brother, black against black," he says.
Nor is the play a stereotypical treatise on black vs. white relations. Hansberry gave the heroes flaws and, as McClinton points out, gave some of the most passionate statements of her beliefs to white characters.
"I think she'd have been the dominant playwright of the era," McClinton concludes. "What you see with August Wilson or Tony Kushner you would have seen with her writers who write on an epic, poetic scale."
Partly because of its broad canvas, McClinton believes, "Les Blancs" was Hansberry's "most brilliant" work, although it has had only a few major productions (including one at Washington's Arena Stage in 1988).
McClinton appeared in one of those rare productions. In 1989 he played a secondary role in a production at the Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn.
The play took on a deep personal meaning to him almost immediately. His mother died on the day auditions were held, and his son was born the first weekend of the run. "This play bracketed the most emotionally disturbing, joyous times in my ,, life," the director says.
McClinton met Nemiroff at Penumbra and suggested he consider casting a child as one of the revolutionaries, giving him a speech that had been excised from the script sent to Penumbra.