Lorrraine Hansberry (1930-65) knew the South Side of Chicago (where she grew up, and where “Raisin in the Sun” is set) and New York’s Greenwich Village (where she lived as an adult, and where she set “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”) better than she knew Africa. Nonetheless, I find her primary African character in her posthumously produced play “Les Blancs,” Tshembe, more credible than the American journalist, Charlie, who is its seeming protagonist. Charlie strikes me as a device to stimulate exposition by other characters, including Tshembe and “Madame,” the wife of a medical missionary who seems to be based on Albert Schweitzer but who is on the other side of the river and does not appear in the play.
Tshembe has left Africa, and married a white woman, who has borne a child. He returns for the funeral of his father, a Kwi chief—who was also covertly the local head of the “terrorists” (based, I think, partly on Kenya’s Mau-Mau, partly on Algerians rebelling against their French masters). Tshembe’s brother, Abioseh, is also part of the resistance passing as a simple-minded servant of the European missionaries.
When the play premiered late in 1970 (which is to say after Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia had become known and led to furious protests, especially on college campuses, including Jackson State and Kent State, where protesters were shot), it divided the audience and critics, much as the plays of her idol, Sean O’Casey had in their day.
She was accused of supporting genocide of whites in Africa by some and of displaying (stereo)types rather than individuals (I would agree in regard to Charlie, but not Madame and not the Matoseh brothers).
The sanest response seems to have come from Harold Clurman in The Nation
“Les Blancs” is not propaganda, as has been inferred; it is a forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of black and white relations all over the world. It clarifies but does not seek to resolve, the historical and human problems involved. It does not provide an Answer. It is an honest play in which tought-provoking matter is given arrestingly theatrical body.
Despite a much-praised, powerful performance by James Earl Jones as Tshembe, the play did not run long on Broadway and seems largely forgotten. Whereas I thought that “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” read better than I can imagine it playing on stage, I think that “Les Blancs” is playable, as well as interesting to read, and is a worthy companion to, for instance, Yulisa Amadu “Pat” Maddy’s 1973 novel No Past, No Present, No Future.
(The title is a strike at Jean Genet’s (1959) Les Noirs, which she disliked, but the French title gives the unfortunate impression that it is set in a French rather than and English African colony. Genet’s play deals with black identity, anger at colonialism, and the murder of a white woman, btw. And James Earl Jones also appeared in the first American production of Genet’s play, off-Broadway.)
©2018, Stephen O. Murray