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May 29, 2017:

Les Blancs reviewed by Rob Stevens

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Jason McBeth, Bill Brochtrup, and Anne Gee Byrd (all photos by John Perrin Flynn)

Lorraine Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play that was produced on Broadway when her classic A Raisin in the Sun opened in 1959. At the age of 29, she won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award becoming the youngest playwright to do so. She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, having just one more play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window produced in her lifetime. While in her hospital bed she attempted to finish what she considered her most important work, Les Blancs. Her husband, Robert Nemiroff, finished the play from her notes and it received a short-lived Broadway run in 1970 and has been rarely produced since then. The play deals with European colonialism in Africa in the early 1960s when the native peoples of the continent started to rebel against their white overlords. It is as relevant today as when it was written 50 years ago. Rogue Machine is currently presenting the long overdue Los Angeles Premiere of Les Blancs at The MET Theatre. If you love theatre you will not want to miss this very rare treat.

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Desean Kevin Terry and Matt Oduña

Percussionist Jelani Blunt and dancer Shari Gardner perfectly set the mood as you enter the playing space. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s scenic design of wooden slats and curtained doorways places you amidst the action in a Mission compound in an unnamed African country. American journalist Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth) has come to Africa to do an article on Reverend Neilsen, the world-renowned saintly founder of the Mission. He is greeted by Madame Neilsen (Ann Gee Byrd), the Mission’s matriarch. Also returning to the Mission for the funeral of his father, a tribal leader, is Tshembe (Desean Kevin Terry), who left behind a European wife and newborn son in London. Tshembe’s older brother Abioseh (Matt Orduna), soon to be ordained a Catholic priest, also arrives, setting off a culture clash between them. Their younger half-brother Eric (Aric Floyd), the result of the rape by a white soldier, is struggling with his sexuality, accepting gifts and more from the Mission’s male Dr. DeKoven (Joel Swetow).

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Desean Kevin Terry and Joel Swetow

The autocratic Major Rice (Bill Brochtrup) and his soldiers commandeer the Mission after yet another native attack on a white family in the area. Rice calls them terrorists; Tshembe calls them rebels and revolutionaries. The tension keeps mounting as the Resistance, founded by Tshembe’s father, tries to recruit him. Morris keeps trying to have an intellectual conversation with Tshembe about the racial divides in Africa while ignoring Tshembe’s rebuttal about the growing racial tension in the USA. Dr. DeKoven gives an impassioned speech about how the white missionaries and doctors, no matter how much good they do, are still there to keep the natives in their subservient positions. The play ends as violence finally erupts as it did throughout most of the African colonies during the 1960s as independence was achieved, sometimes with diplomacy, but most often with bloody warfare.

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Desean Kevin Terry and Anne Gee Byrd

Hansberry has written a very layered and intriguing play, unfortunately with a bit too much speechifying at times, but the work deserves to be seen. It gives one pause to think what the play could have been had she been able to finish it herself and to think what else she would have created had she lived beyond age 34. Her play has found very sympathetic hands with director Gregg T. Daniel, who has done a masterful job of bringing this rare gem to brilliant life on the MET’s stage. The large cast inhabit their roles and vividly convey the vast array of emotions Hansberry has stirred up with her prose. Les Blancs is sure to be one of 2017’s most memorable theatrical events.

4stars

The Met, 1089 N. Oxford Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends July 31. www.roguemachinetheatre.com

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