Hansberry play speaks to races years later

January 25, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

AH, LORRAINE Hansberry, my Nubian Cassandra! Did you know that we'd need the play you wrote more than 30 years ago today?

Did the folks at Center Stage deliberately present Hansberry's play "Les Blancs" during a time of racial polarization in Baltimore? Or was it a mere coincidence? One of my readers claims coincidences are God's way of remaining anonymous.

Whatever the reason, Hansberry's play -- written before her death in 1965 -- has some scenes that could have been written for the late 1990s. It seems as if Hansberry could have written the lines for America's floundering Dialogue on Race.

The irony is that Hansberry's play is set in a fictional African country fighting for independence from colonialism. Tshembe Matoseh returns to his country, Zatembe, from England, where he has left his white wife and son. He is reunited with his brothers Abioseh and Eric. Together, they plan to attend their father's funeral. Tshembe plans to return to England and Abioseh to his work as a Catholic priest. But an African uprising against the colonial regime changes each brother's plans and their relationship to each other.

Abioseh condemns the "terrorists" and "fanatics" who are systemically and indiscriminately murdering white settlers. He tells Tshembe that the future of their country lies with men like themselves: the "educated and reasonable men." Tshembe admonishes Abioseh to remember that both sides are guilty of lTC terrorism and then chides his brother for becoming a priest.

Thus the stage is set for the main conflict in "Les Blancs": colonialism vs. liberation, African values vs. European ones. But at that point Hansberry throws her audience a curve. Enter Charlie Morris, a white American journalist who's come to Zatembe to write an article on a missionary hospital.

Morris is a liberal who's appalled by the ramblings of Major Rice, an officer in the colonial army who launches into a monologue about the superiority of the European over the African.

"This is my country," Rice says. "I've worked hard." Pointing to an African servant, Rice continues, "They had it for centuries and did nothing with it."

"I think I know what you were feeling when that ugly scene took place," Morris tells Tshembe after Rice leaves.

"Do you?" Tshembe answers, and then tells Morris he's only looking for a genuine African intellectual whose "depths you can plow."

"I see you're outraged by others' assumptions, but you yourself are full of them," Morris answers, thus setting the stage for several conversations between the two. Their debates could take place between whites and blacks in Baltimore -- or New York, or Chicago or anywhere in America, for that matter -- in 1998.

"Why should we be able to talk so easily?" Tshembe asks at one point. "You expect 300 years to disappear in five minutes?"

"What will happen if we can't talk, Tshembe?" Morris answers. "I really can't shoulder my father's sins. I have too many of my own."

Doesn't Tshembe sound like the African-American constantly reminding whites of the history of slavery and its brutal and bloody aftermath? Doesn't Morris sound like the white American who says, "Neither I nor my ancestors owned any slaves and I'm tired of being blamed for it"?

Like Tshembe and Morris, white and black Americans hear each other, but nobody's listening. The black American is trying to say that the issue isn't just slavery, but that after slavery those not-so-minor matters of Jim Crow and widespread discrimination led to a system of white skin privilege that existed well into this century. It was that system of white skin privilege that made affirmative action necessary in the first place. The black American wishes the white American would simply acknowledge that such a system of white skin privilege really existed and wants assurances it won't return.

The white American probably wants some assurances that, even if the system of white skin privilege is acknowledged, that he not be asked to perpetually pay for it. Morris seems to speak for the white American when he lashes out at Tshembe near the play's end.

"Get off my back!" Morris shouts. "What makes you so holy? One week ago you were complaining about me plumbing your depths; don't presume to know about mine. I'm just Charlie Morris, not the whites."

It's as if Hansberry glanced into the future and realized that more than 30 years later, black and white Americans would still be having this discussion. And an honest discussion, Hansberry warned three decades ago, is what we had better have.

"This conversation will never get any better," Tshembe says at one point.

"It has to," Morris answers.

"For whose sake?" Tshembe asks.

"For both our sakes," Morris shoots back.

Amen to that, Lorraine.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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