Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs is set in colonial Africa sometime in the mid–20th century, and while much has changed since then, the play’s moral dilemmas and the racism and hypocrisy that give rise to them remain with us.
Writing on her deathbed, Hansberry dedicated her play to Angela Davis, George Jackson and the “Men of Attica, whose spirit is in these pages.” She died before finishing it, so the final version was put together by her ex-husband, producer Robert Nemiroff. It opened on Broadway in 1970 with James Earl Jones in the pivotal role of Tshembe Matoseh, a man asked to choose between a peaceful life with his wife and son in London and the responsibility of leading his people in their fight for freedom and against oppression in colonial Africa. Jones must have been wonderful. Happily, the current revival at Rogue Machine, directed by Gregg T. Daniel, is powered by a terrific lead performance from Desean Kevin Terry that goes a long way toward compensating for shortcomings elsewhere.
The play is set in a fictional African country, with events alternately taking place at a Christian mission which operates a hospital for the locals and at Tshembe’s humble dwelling. He’s come home after years abroad for the occasion of his father’s funeral to find great unrest within his tribe, as well as the unsettling discovery that one brother (Matt Orduña) has become a Roman Catholic priest while another (Aric Floyd), born of a white father, has taken to wearing women’s cosmetics to please an elderly white lover. A terrorist faction among the local population has been attacking and murdering white settlers and the local army major, George Rice (Bill Brochtrup), has been taking retaliatory action, which includes establishing a curfew and visiting the mission and attempting to intimidate the doctors there into divulging information about their staff.
Tshembe’s homecoming coincides with the arrival of an American journalist, Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth), who’s doing a piece on the mission and is full of white liberal opinions about race and politics: He believes in the possibility of a solution through political compromise, and in the fraternity of well-meaning men to transcend the ugly strife. Charlie makes overtures to Tshembe — a drink and a chat — but he’s met with hostility born of Tshembe’s understandable distrust of interposing white men with facile answers.
One of the weaknesses in this production is McBeth’s rather thin rendering of Charlie, who comes off as something of a hollow poseur, absent the intricate conflicts and complexities we see in Terry’s Tshembe, or in Floyd as his light-skinned brother, or in Amir Abdullah’s portrayal of Tshembe’s old friend, who acts the part of a groveling houseboy while secretly planning insurrection. And the production gains texture from Anne Gee Byrd as the wife of the reverend, now missing, who founded the mission, and who keeps its secrets close to her chest.
The play itself is chock-full of subplots and chunky exposition in the way that dramas of that period tended to be, but it’s all there for a reason, which is to explore the painfully real entanglements and realities of colonialism and race. On opening night, a number of other performances besides McBeth’s needed refining, but the story moved forward despite the script’s talkiness, impelled by Terry’s intensity and charisma, drummer Jelani Blunt’s heart-quickening percussion throughout, and dancer Shari Gardener, who at intervals whirls up a storm (choreography by Joyce Guy) as the emblem of an angry people in transition.
GO! Rogue Machine at the MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., East Hollywood; through July 3. roguemachinetheatre.net/les-blancs.