Lorraine Hansberry titled her last play "Les Blancs" in reaction to Jean Genet's "Les Negres," which she felt was too simplistic.
There is certainly nothing simplistic about "Les Blancs," which is receiving a thought-provoking and at times stirring production at Center Stage under Marion McClinton's swift, insightful direction.
Although the play is set in an imaginary African nation on the brink of overthrowing colonial rule, Hansberry's canvas is broader than any one country or continent. This is a play that explores identity, self-determination, responsibility, heritage and, especially, love vs. duty. It asks us to examine who we are and how far we would go to uphold that identity.
Offering a multiplicity of viewpoints and shunning easy answers, it's also a play that abounds in contradictions. "Nothing in Africa is quite as it seems," a British major says at one point.
His words apply to most of the characters. The recently deceased revolutionary leader's eldest son (James Austin Williams) has turned his coat -- and his collar -- on his tribal heritage by studying to become a Catholic priest. The frail wife (Myra Carter) of an internationally revered Albert Schweitzer-like missionary turns out to be a pillar of strength whose understanding of her position in this struggling nation makes her the play's wisest character. Even the British major (Stephen Mendillo) has a connection to his adopted country that's deeper than could be imagined from his bigoted, officious manner.
It is no wonder that when Tshembe, the middle son of the late revolutionary leader, returns home after five years in Europe and the United States, he is confused and torn about his ties to his native land. Tshembe makes several references to "Hamlet" in the course of the play, and, as perceptively portrayed by Jonathan Earl Peck, this handsome, cosmopolitan, well-educated African is very much like the reluctant Danish prince, who finds his homeland embroiled in turmoil of which he wants no part.
One of the play's more didactic devices is the character of an American journalist (Jay Patterson), whose presence allows for long passages of exposition and issue-laden discussions -- particularly with Tshembe, whom the reporter is sure he has completely figured out. Instead, the reporter's efforts to categorize and label those he meets reveal him, and not his interview subjects, to have a limited perspective.
Besides Carter's magnificent portrayal of the blind but all-seeing wife of the famed missionary (whom we never see but who is revealed to lack his wife's compassion as well as wisdom), there are a number of other rewarding and surprising characterizations.
In the role of a mission doctor, Rex Robbins seems to be portraying a noble and selfless character, until he reveals his cynical, but realistic, sense of resignation. The most obvious example of a deceiving appearance, however, is Anthony Chisholm's portrayal of Peter, a shuffling mission lackey who occupies a role in his tribe that is anything but subservient. The fable Peter tells Tshembe about the "wise" hyena whose insistence on careful talk and contemplation brought ruin to all the other hyenas is one of the play's central metaphors.
Another is Hansberry's inclusion of a non-speaking character identified simply as "The Woman." A bluntly overt symbol for the land and the fierce need for freedom, The Woman is portrayed by dancer Maria Broom. Though she serves primarily as Tshembe's conscience or muse, McClinton has increased her participation. At several points she effectively slips in among the villagers; at others, especially when her shadow engulfs the stage, her presence comes across as overly melodramatic.
The script of "Les Blancs" was unfinished at the time of Hansberry's death in 1965 at age 34 and completed posthumously by her ex-husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff. Theatergoers only familiar with Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun" will find "Les Blancs" eye-opening.
The distance the playwright traveled from that domestic drama is evident as soon as you see designer David Gallo's expansive, abstract set, whose floor is covered with burnt orange sand and whose background of mountains and sky seems to stretch into infinity. On one side of the stage, an elephant skeleton suggests the dead, but not forgotten, past; on the other, a utility pole
suggests the encroaching future.
"Les Blancs" can be as talky as George Bernard Shaw (but without the humor) and as politically complex as Shakespeare. It's a difficult and rarely produced play that, by all accounts, has rarely been done right. Center Stage has gone a long way toward correcting that situation.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays, most Saturdays and 1 p.m. Jan. 21; through Feb. 1
Pub Date: 1/09/98