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Shooting Blancs: African Lives Matter and the Black Man’s Burden

Ed Rampell: Lorraine Hansberry’s play remains very relevant for today - perhaps more so in America than sub-Saharan Africa, where police excessive use of force and the Black Lives Matter movement, remain, unfortunately, very timely topics.
les blancs

Shari Gardner, Desean Kevin Terry, and Jelani Blunt (Photos: John Perrin Flynn)

LES BLANCS Theatre Review

If playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s beloved 1959 A Raisin in the Sun was her Martin Luther King/Civil Rights pro-integration play, then Les Blancs was her Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Nkrumah pro-Black Power drama. Written in the early 1960s, with its anti-colonial militancy, Les Blancs was a few years ahead of its time. Lamentably, poor Hansberry, who died quite young, never lived to see it produced in full - it wasn’t on Broadway until 1970, after some posthumous tinkering by her husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff.

Set in Africa, Rogue Machine’s must-see production of Les Blancs deliberately does not take place in any specified colonized nation. Although the approximately two and a half hour-long two-acter has a French title and France was a major colonizer, the thesps speak English, with the African characters using accents that sound as if they come from Anglophone Africa, which was colonized by ye-not-so-merry-olde-England. The play also seems suggestive of British-ruled Ghana and Kenya in particular, with the oft-mentioned offstage independence leader Amos Kumalo reminiscent of Jomo Kenyatta. The militant tactics used by the liberation movement likewise indicate Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising.

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Desean Kevin Terry and Anne Gee Byrd

So why did the Chicago-born Hansberry bestow a French title on her play? She wrote it in part as a response to white Parisian playwright Jean Genet’s 1959 production of Les Nègres, Clownerie (The Blacks: A Clown Show), a commentary on racism wherein Black actors perform in whiteface. Of course, Les Blancs translates as The Whites, although many of its 20 or so characters are Blacks.

The onstage action of Les Blancs transpires at a combination of mission and hospital in the outback of an African nation that has been established by a revered paternalistic figure, Reverend Nielson, who - like Kumalo - is an offstage presence. His wife, however, is very much onstage, although Madame Neilson (Anne Gee Byrd) is aging and losing her eyesight, which may be a metaphor for Caucasians’ blindness towards matters of race.

(When I was a little boy my Dad, a Civil Rights activist, took me to Broadway to see The Great White Hope and at the end, when the boxer who’d cheated in order to “defeat” Jack Johnson couldn’t see because of the blood in his eyes, my father noted: “Get it? The great white hope is blind.” BTW, James Earl Jones’ performance was the best acting I’ve ever seen.)

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Jason McBeth, Amir Abdullah, and Desean Kevin Terry

Meanwhile, back at the review:

In any case, decades before Les Blancs begins, the Nielsons picked up what that idiot Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of racism, moronically called “the white man’s burden” and left an unspecified European nation to bring Jesus and medicine to “benighted” Africa. In the play, which it seems to me was originally set around the time Hansberry wrote it, the Natives are restless, rising up against that burdensome foreign imposition. For rather than raising Third World heathens up to the civilized level of cultured civilized whitey, that “burden” primarily consisted of merciless oppression and exploitation, from the slave trade to the mass carnage in the Belgian Congo and beyond. (Don’t get me STARTED!!!)

Lorraine Hansberry’s play remains very relevant for today - perhaps more so in America than sub-Saharan Africa, where police excessive use of force and the Black Lives Matter movement, remain, unfortunately, very timely topics.

As the independence movement heats up, enter two additional characters: Tshembe Matoseh (Desean Kevin Terry) is a former activist in the liberation cause who has traveled overseas and settled in England, where he has married a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Europe woman. (BTW, many of the Pacific Islander self-styled nationalists I encountered in Oceania had haole (white) significant others, as did Hansberry herself. People certainly have the right to date and mate any consenting adult they please, but this strikes me as psychologically curious.)

Meanwhile, back at the review:

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Tshembe is in shambles, divided inside himself between his African and European selves, which are warring with each other. This wretched schizophrenic would have made an excellent case study for Dr. Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and author of that peerless psychological probe of the colonized psyche, 1952’s Black Skin, White Masks. I wasn’t sure if in Les Blancs’ denouement whether or not Tshembe’s conflicts ever had a resolution, but I found this character to be somewhere between pathetic and despicable. This does not mean that Terry trod the boards poorly but rather that he did an excellent job depicting this tortured soul; hopefully, this gifted thesp should be remembered at awards time.

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Rosney Mauger, Bill Brochtrup, Jason McBeth, and Matthew Lindberg

His debates with journalist Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth), who has “parachuted” into this backwater apparently to burnish his credentials as an “expert” on “deepest darkest Africa,” sharply reveal Tshembe’s contradictions. Morris is a convenient foil, the caricaturish white “liberal” intellectual and the play’s only American character, who may be patterned after John Gunther. Like Lorraine, Gunther was a Chicagoan who wrote Death Be Not Proud as well as those “Inside” books, such as 1955’s Inside Africa, which claimed to provide an insider account to armchair travelers of life in various lands.

Overall, Les Blancs is an outstanding production, adeptly directed by Gregg T. Daniel, with a great set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and costuming by Wendell C. Carmichael. As producer John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine’s founding artistic director, told me at the after party, Hansberry’s play remains very relevant for today - perhaps more so in America than sub-Saharan Africa, where police excessive use of force and the Black Lives Matter movement, remain, unfortunately, very timely topics. The independence supporters’ use of terrorism - in particular, the killing of unarmed civilians to achieve political ends - is likewise all too current, as violence begets an ever spiraling cycle of violence. (Although much was made of Mau Mau violence in Kenya, there was for some mysterious reason far less condemnation of extreme British practices to suppress independence, including concentration camps, which I believe actually cost more lives. But they weren’t Caucasoid, so far less “important” for MSM to report on.)

In addition, Les Blancs has a gay subplot that was quite daring for its time and may have been inspired by Hansberry’s association with novelist/essayist James Baldwin.

One can see Hansberry’s seeds of Les Blancs in a scene in A Raisin in the Sun, the first play performed on the Great White Way written by a Black woman. In Act Two, Scene One, Walter Younger and his sister Beneatha, who is garbed in Nigerian raiment, perform a tribal African dance and shout “Ocomogosiay” (which may be Yoruba for a chant that “welcomes the hunters back to the village”) as they dance to a record playing a Nigerian melody which enables them to look “back to the past,” as Lorraine put it in her stage directions. Beneatha is also being courted by the Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai.

Les Blancs cannily uses dance to express Negritude, the spirit of African-ness. Shari Gardner, who personifies and proves once again that “Black is beautiful,” is the best thing about this Rogue Machine production, reappearing throughout both acts as the embodiment of ethnic memory, pride and culture. Her face painted, Gardner is scantily clad in a halter top and brief skirt that looks like Polynesian tapa (bark cloth), but isn’t. This talented dancer is a sight to behold, epitomizing what it means to be young, gifted and Black, performing exaltations and exhortations choreographed by Joyce Guy.

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Desean Kevin Terry, Aric Floyd, and Matt Orduñolo

Although I loved this play I still have some quibbles. First of all, the undergarments that Gardner, as well as a similarly clad male actor, wear beneath their sarong-like garments do not match their tribal-type aboriginal apparel - they look like something one might wear to L.A. Fitness for a workout, thereby undercutting the visual indigenous aesthetic effect these characters are striving for. The drumming that opens the show is skillfully rendered but goes on too long and is far too loud for an intimate theater - a couple of ticket buyers clasped their hands over their ears and I was afraid the percussive pounding would give me a migraine (fortunately, it didn’t). And some of the dialogue in act two goes on too long and is speechifying, especially Dr. Willy DeKoven’s dialogue (this is not the fault of Joel Swetow, who like the rest of the cast acquits himself admirably, but of the play per se). Roll over, DeKoven!

But these are minor points concerning a major production. Once again, we’re in like Flynn as Rogue Machine demonstrates that it remains one of L.A.’s most essential and cutting edge theatre companies. Like Rogue Machine’s previous productions of One Night in Miami and Dutch Masters, this troupe is still going rogue, going where angels fear to tread on the boards, towards a meaningful conversation on racism. Lorraine Hansberry, who personally encountered W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson, may have left us far too early, but she can rest peacefully knowing her work is in such able hands.

Ironically, Rogue Machine Theatre’s Les Blancs’run ends the day before Independence Day. It plays on Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 3:00 p.m., through July 3, 2017 (No performance on June 16 & 24; and Pay-What-You-Can on June 5: minimum $5 on sale from 7:00 p.m. before the show, while available. No advance sales on that night). Rogue Machine is located at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or at www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/reviewer who is co-presenting Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal on Friday, 7:30 p.m., June 23 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: laworkersedsoc@gmail.com.