"All art is ultimately social," Lorraine Hansberry once said. She put that belief to the test during every stage of her tragically brief literary life. The 1959 stage version of her famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier, was the first by a Black woman to ever be produced on Broadway. The 1961 movie version—also starring Poitier, in one of his most iconic roles—cemented this complex but accessible play's well-deserved position in the pantheon of American theater. James Baldwin praised A Raisin in the Sun, which tells the story of a Black family struggling for survival on the South Side of Chicago, for putting "the truth of Black people's lives" on stage for the first time.
Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 at the age of 34, having never produced another play that came close to achieving the cultural impact of her masterpiece. During the final years of her life, though, she wrestled with a promising script set in Africa called Les Blancs. Left partially unfinished at her death, the play was completed by her ex-husband and other acquaintances and was finally produced in 1970.
That first production of Les Blancs wasn't very successful, and it hasn't been staged often since. Much of this probably has to do with the spirit of the times in which it was produced. In the early '70s, during the height of the Black Power movement, white audiences saw the play as too provocative, while Black radicals viewed it as a conservative sell-out. In a period characterized by a notable lack of political subtlety, audiences failed to embrace the complex truths embedded in Hansberry's final artistic creation.
Modern audiences might have an easier time of it. A new production of the play is currently running at Out ch'Yonda (929 Fourth Street SW), a Barelas venue specializing in performances of work by artists of color.
At the beginning of Les Blancs, a Black African intellectual named Tshembe Matoseh, after spending several years in Europe and the United States, returns to his native country to find his family in shambles and his homeland in chaos. His father has just died, and an indigenous insurrection has risen up against the white settlers who rule Tshembe's country. He must decide whether to take part in the violent struggle or to focus on his own commercial and family interests.
It's not an easy decision. While in Europe, Tshembe married a white woman and had a child with her. He's a man torn between two worlds, familiar with the white settlers' arguments about the "benefits" of imperialism for Black Africa, while recognizing at the same time the hypocrisies inherent in such arguments. Throughout most of the play, Tshembe also seems to realize that little good can come from violent struggle. The damage has already been done to his maimed country by the whites who claimed to bring salvation.
Hansberry wrote Les Blancs in part as a commentary on the civil rights struggle occurring at the time in her own country. Yet this play, despite being almost 40 years old, is quite timely for several reasons, not the least of which is that it successfully deconstructs the loaded concept of terrorism.
Despite several flaws in this production, Les Blancs is still a pleasure to see. Virginia Hampton as Tshembe shines every moment she's on stage. It's a peculiar casting choice, but the diminutive Hampton looks ultra cool sporting her paste-on mustache, and, despite her incongruous physical appearance, she grabs the role by the throat and never lets go. Hers is an emotionally intricate and moving performance.
The sound design by Sina Soul—with its layered electronica, live drumming and chants—is one of the best aspects of the play, but during the first half it's a bit too loud, mainly because a couple of the actors fail to project their lines sufficiently. The dialogue is always audible, but sometimes I had to strain to hear it.
The set is eye-catching but a bit jumbled. For me, the stuffed monkey and lemur detract from the seriousness of the subject. Likewise, the fact that most of the audience has a clear view of the sound guy operating his mechanical doodads behind a chain link fence also seems distracting.
Other aspects just didn't seem well thought out. The most jarring might be the finale, which is designed to be violent and dramatic, but end up being wishy washy and inconclusive, the audience not quite sure when it's safe to begin applauding.
All in all, though, I think this production gets enough things right to make it a worthwhile show. The opportunity to see Hansberry's final vision brought to life—a vision that has such enormous relevance to the current screwed-up state of world affairs—is reason enough to give Out ch'Yonda's Les Blancs a gander.