Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Stanford University through Aug. 5

Reviewed by Wanda Sabir

In its ninth season, Stanford University Theatre Department is putting on a summer series of theatre that challenges as it entertains. Perhaps the series theme, “Africa on Stage: Let Us Tell You a Story,” was chosen in support of two exhibits at the Cantor Arts Center this summer, one already closed, Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks which closed July 1, the other “Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World,” up through Sept. 2. Who knows? It is great to finally see Les Blancs, the Whites. I knew the translation without being able to speak French. What I didn’t know was that Lorraine Hansberry wrote this play in response to French playwright, Jean Genet’s The Blacks (1935). I remember this play was celebrated for its outstanding cast. Harry Elam said during the Q&A after Sunday evening’s program, that many considered The Blacks the official start of the Black Arts Movement. I certainly hope this is an overstatement.

In Les Blancs Hansberry rolls out the script for so much of what is wrong in Africa today magnified now that colonialism is supposedly over. Abderrahmane Sissako, the Malian director, asks the same questions in his film, "Bamako," when the World Bank stands trial and loses.

Briefly, the story is one of two brothers who have the same mother, and one, the third child, also the youngest, has a different father, a white man. But the fight isn’t with the younger son, it’s between the two older brothers when they meet again at their father’s funeral at a time their country is in turmoil. They both love their country and its people; yet like Martin and Malcolm, the methods utilized vary greatly.

Hansberry tosses the typical colonial ingredients in the bowl and the salad leaves one chewing long after the final bow. As one picks her teeth with metaphors—what does she mean when she has Tshembe Matoseh marry a white woman and have a son, a boy who resembles his brother, whose life cost his mother hers. Then there is Abioseh Matoseh, who loves his master more than his flesh and blood.

The action is set in a mission hospital where two doctors, one a skeptic, the other a racist philanthropist minister to the ill while the army led by Major George Rice says all the politically incorrect things most assembled believe are true. There is the dutiful wife, and lot of African servants who reinforce the stereotypes, except in Les Blancs, it’s a ruse to dash water on the scent.

It is the villagers who provide the context for the dilemma Tshembe faces when he’d rather just bury his dad and return home to Europe where troubles are on the tele, a distance so safe he can pretend they aren’t there.

Les Blancs is extraordinary in its relevance today—call the two brothers Arab and Jew, or poor and rich, or old and young, or chronically ill and well. The juxtaposition is the same, the fight is the same too.

Though two of the cast members Anthony J. Haney and Kieleil DeLeon are equity actors, the fine student cast blurs the line between professional and amateur. All are great, especially Cameron Drake's "Peter" character, a man who loves his people. Another character I liked was, “the woman.” Actress, Aleta Hayes' character opened the play with dance, her silhouette in the shadows. Rush Rehm's "Charlie Morris" is great as the sympathetic writer who is so paralyzed by privilege he can’t hear Tshembe talking to him because he is a black man and therefore inferior. The villagers are also great. They change the sets as they dance, and the drummer—Tumani Onabiyi, who sets the pace in partnership with choreographer Aleta Hayes, make the play feel like we are really in Africa.

Some people are eternally awake because of the evil they’ve done. The problem with the situation between the colonized and the colonizer is the fiction erected between the reality and the what they’d like to believe is true.

At one point the major tells Peter to dance for his American guest who is on safari, only the wild animals are human beings. Peter parrots his carefully rehearsed script of how great for Africa is the European presence. “I have nothing against Africans,” the major says by explanation, “but this is my home. They had it for hundreds of years and they weren’t doing anything with it.”

Peter sees it another way. He tells the story of the hyenas and the elephants. The elephants needed more space, and the hyenas went to the counsel to ask for advice. The animals thought about it so long the elephant continued to expand its holdings until the hyenas were completely pushed off their land. This is why they have such an anguished and sad laugh.

The same was happening to African people as European people weren’t waiting for an African response, rather they were pushing forward with expanding their territories. Les Blancs questions this right to western expansion in an occupied land and a people’s right to resist this insurgence and rupture of their lives.

Since Hansberry didn’t get a chance to complete the work and her ex-husband did, what is the impact of his intrusion on the world she fashioned? We’ll never know what this is the director, Harry Elam said. However, there is enough here, even where one might think—could Hansberry really have written this like this? The work's integrity makes one look at all the stereotypes and maladies associated with colonialism or enslavement whether that is with a whip or bible or bottle. Ingredients, once again in that salad.

When the story begins we have a man returning home after a long time away. His father is ill and he has been sent for, but he arrives too late. Tshembe is married with a wife and baby. When he tells this to his little brother, Eric, the sibling is not impressed. Married to a white woman, Tshembe’s baby probably looks a lot like his brother he shares a mother with, but not a dad. The boy is mulatto.

We wonder for most of the play who the dad is. (I won’t spoil it for you.) Anyway, the brothers put on customary costumes to celebrate their departed father. When the third brother arrives, he protests, and when he removes his over garment, we see why.

The play continues for two more weeks running Thursday-Sunday, August 5, 8 p.m. at Pigott Theatre at Stanford University.

Visit or call (650) 725-5838 or There are also free movies on Mondays at 7 p.m., in Cubberley Auditorium. Visit the website for the full schedule.


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