Reviving "Les Blancs" adds no luster to the reputation of Lorraine Hansberry, who wrote one incontestable masterpiece for the theater, "A Raisin in the Sun," before her untimely death at 34.
She never finished "Les Blancs," a drama about the birthing pains of freedom in an unnamed African country. Hansberry's husband, Robert Nemiroff, went on to put together the final script, which received an abortive Broadway production in 1970. Now, for reasons that elude me, Arena Stage is giving it a go.
Although grand in scale and ambitious of theme, "Les Blancs," which opened last night, virtually screams out for further refinements. Hansberry may well have had them in mind. In its actual state, however, the play consists of nearly three hours of undramatized rhetoric and argument, punctuated by occasional bursts of offstage action.
Some of Hansberry's thinking is provocative and there is the occasional speech that demonstrates a master touch. But overall the work has such a soporific effect that even the final five minutes -- when revolution breaks out, machine guns crackle and blood flows -- may not be enough to rouse you from your torpor.
Part of the play takes place in a tribal compound, where three brothers wrestle with the notion of independence and what they will do (or won't do) to bring it about. Tshembe (Tony Todd) is largely Europeanized and would just as soon sidestep the currents of history for life in London with his white wife and son. Abioseh (Basil Wallace) has opted to stay on in Africa and serve his people, albeit in the robes of the clergy.
In the rebellious Eric (Jeffrey Wright), the tug of war is even more basic: Although he has the same mother as his brothers, his father is the white martinet who commands the forces combing the bush for guerrillas. Each brother, of course, represents a different response to colonialism. The trouble is that Hansberry never lifted them to the next level, where their conflicting points of view might have been absorbed into living, breathing flesh. All the play's passion is vested in its ideas, not in the characters who utter them.
The titular "blancs" inhabit a mission compound, where the rest of Hansberry's play unfolds. Here, too, the characters are monochromatic types: a hard-working spinster surgeon; the missionary's blind, stalwart wife; a doctor who has come to question the mission's "civilizing" influence; and a journalist, fresh off the riverboat and looking to write the definitive article on the growing unrest.
The journalist (Richard Beymer) shuttles between the two camps, asking questions and engaging in debate. I realize journalists are pesky people, but using one to coax the other characters out of their shells is hardly the most satisfying of dramatic devices. Did Hansberry know this? I suspect she did.
In one scene, the journalist has been trying unsuccessfully to pry under the cool dedication of the spinster. There may even be a hint of flirtation in his nonstop questions. "Am I still being interviewed?" she finally asks him, with a hint of crispness in her voice. "Yes," he responds, "but if I play my cards right it may turn into a conversation." You might say "Les Blancs" as a whole is a succession of interviews, waiting to be turned into conversations.
For all the intellectual fervor that Hansberry brought to such topics as racism, paternalism and the terrible cost of freedom, the play is as dry as a treatise. I suppose director Harold Scott, who appeared in the original Broadway production, has done what had to be done under the circumstances. He's encouraged his actors to go for the tumultuous emotions, to hurl about the grand pronouncements, to savor the sour regrets.
But the text doesn't support the histrionics. The performances look false, overstated, inappropriate -- rather like a desperate politician, flailing his arms and thundering for reform before an audience of one. Todd struggles vigorously to animate the raging, if rather patently orchestrated, contradictions in Tshembe's soul. You can appreciate his efforts without necessarily believing them. Back at the mission, Lilia Skala comes off better than the rest, probably because the missionary's wife -- aging, frail, accepting -- has fewer axes to grind.
Karl Eigsti has designed the set, which consists principally of dirt, with a wooden porch in one corner and the outlines of a thatched roof in the other. Some flowers and puddles can be found on the premises, but they don't do much to keep down the dust. Allen Lee Hughes' lighting is somewhat more evocative.
Throbbing drums underscore the production, while a spear-carrying African goddess (Evelyn Thomas), painted for war, suggests in dance great frenzies to come. A blood bath is imminent, as if the characters weren't forever reminding us. Still, the final cataclysm seems to surge out of right field. Endings like this belong to the sudden and contrived world of melodrama.
For Hansberry's sake, "Les Blancs" should have been left in the trunk.
Les Blancs, by Lorraine Hansberry; final text by Robert Nemiroff. Directed by Harold Scott. Dances by Evelyn Thomas; set, Karl Eigsti; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; costumes, Marjorie Slaiman. With Evelyn Thomas, Jeffrey Wright, Tony Todd, Basil Wallace, Kaiulani Lee, Lou Ferguson, Richard Beymer, Mark Hammer, Ralph Cosham, Lilia Skala. At Arena Stage through March 13.