|Written by||Lorraine Hansberry|
|Date premiered||November 15, 1970|
|Place premiered||Longacre Theatre, New York City|
|Subject||Africa, colonialism, revolution|
|Setting||Ztembe, a fictional South African country|
Les Blancs is a play written by Lorraine Hansberry. It debuted on Broadway on November 15, 1970 and ran until December 19 of that same year. It debuted to heavy criticism. It was Lorraine Hansberry’s final work and she considered it her most important, as it depicts the plights of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is her only play that takes place in Africa, and it uses dance and music both as signifiers of black and African cultures; a concept called the Black Aesthetic.
Plot (Contains Spoilers)
Writer Charlie Morris arrives at the Mission. He meets Dr. Marta Gotterling and Dr. Willy DeKoven. Major George Rice informs Charlie of the ongoing conflict between the Colonial Reserve and the Resistance.
Tshembe Matoseh returns to the village for the funeral of his father, who founded the Resistance. He tells his half-brother, Eric, of his family in England, and they discuss the struggle for independence. Abioseh Matoseh, the oldest brother, returns from London. He is in the process of ordination as a priest. Tshembe rejects Roman Catholicism, which creates a conflict of cultures between the brothers.
Charlie is attempting to convince Dr. Gotterling to join him for a walk when Major Rice and soldiers arrive and tell them of a family who has been murdered by the Resistance. Tshembe enters, and Major Rice searches him for a weapon. Rice calls the country “our home” and calls the hills “our hills,” indicating his sense of ownership of the land. In a conversation full of tension, Charlie expressed a desire to transcend race relations and Tshembe cast doubts on the possibility. The Woman dances onto the stage and holds a spear out for Tshembe to take, a symbol of the urge he feels to join the Resistance.
Charlie questions Dr. Gotterling about Madame Nielsen’s husband, Reverend Nielsen, who founded the Catholic mission. Dr. Gotterling defends Reverend Nielsen's decision to found the mission.
Tshembe discovers Eric keeps cosmetics and uses his sexuality to question his masculinity. Charlie and Tshembe talk, but Tshembe is tired of words and tries explain to Charlie that nothing can come of their talking. Peter and Ngago enter to recruit Tshembe to join the Resistance. Tshembe tells them he will go speak to Kumalo, a national leader and negotiator, instead.
Rice orders troops to be quartered at the Mission. Kumalo has been arrested, and Reverend Nielsen still has not made an appearance. Charlie tries to get Madame Nielsen to offer a statement on the conflict in the country. Tshembe now responds to the appearance of The Woman.
Eric expresses his desire to join the Resistance, but Tshembe mocks his biracial identity and, again, questions his masculinity. Abioseh calls the Resistance the “Terror.” Tshembe is critical of both his brothers. Abioseh goes to tell Major Rice about Peter’s role in the Resistance.
Charlie, Tshembe, and Dr. DeKoven speak, and Dr. DeKoven states that the charitable work he does enables colonialism. It is revealed that Major Rice is Eric's father, having raped, Tshembe's, and Abioseh's mother. Rice announces the Reverend has been killed and then proceeds to kills Peter with the help of his soldiers.
Ngago calls the Kwi people to overthrow the colonists. Tshembe and Charlie speak for the last time about race relations. Madame Nielsen reveals Reverend Nielsen believed that God intended to separate people by race, and she recruits Tshembe to join the Resistance.
Abioseh seeks approval from Madam Nielsen for joining the clergy and telling Major Rice about the Resistance. Tshembe enters and shoots Abioseh. A battle breaks out, and Madame Nielsen is killed in the crossfire.
Characters and Character Relationships (Heavy Spoilers)
- The Woman: The abstract representation of the growing conflict in Africa and the growing conflict within the heart of the main protagonist, Tshembe. She appears only to Tshembe as a decorated spear-bearing warrior; dancing rhythmically to war drums. She appears to him on two different occasions when he is confronted with the choice to join the conflict or not. She first appears in the first scene dancing to the drums and raising a spear above her head. Tshembe confronts her directly at the end of a scene in which he has a tense conversation with Charlie Morris. He describes her to Charlie as “Joan of Arc,” so he could understand. In the end he rebukes her saying, “I HAVE RENOUNCED ALL SPEARS!”
- Tshembe Matoseh: The main protagonist of the play. He is the son of a Kwi chief and is returning to attend his father’s funeral who had died before he could arrive. He is returning from England where he immigrated and gained a formal English education. He is married to an English woman and they have had a child together. Throughout the story Tshembe tells everyone, including the Woman, that he simply wants to honor his father and return home to his family. However, the conflict in Africa to include the Woman will not let him go and he is inevitably dragged into the mounting revolution.
- Abioseh Matoseh: Tshembe’s older brother. He has fully embraced the culture of the west as he is training to be an ordained priest. He hopes that taking on this lifestyle will allow him to share in the power held by the white settlers. He argues with Tshembe over the well-being of their younger brother Eric; Tshembe wants Eric to return to England with him, while Abioseh wants Eric to come with him to potentially join the priesthood. The story uses Abioseh as a symbol of full assimilation as he has denounced his heritage to the point of betraying his own people. Tshembe symbolizes his inevitable joining of the revolution by executing him for his betrayal.
- Eric/Ngedi: The teenage, biracial brother of Tshembe and Abioseh, the result of their mother's rape by Major Rice. He is a rash young man with an affinity for alcohol usually provided to him by Dr. Willy Dekovan, Eric is an impressionable youth who is also caught up in the mounting conflict. He was the only one of the brothers to be with their father, the chief when he died. He confronts Tshembe about this when they meet after his older brother’s time in England and they have an amusing conversation about Tshembe’s wife. Essentially orphaned, Eric is caught between his two older brothers who argue over who shall take responsibility for him.
- Madame Nielson: A sharp and intelligent older woman and the wife of Reverend Nielson who started the Mission forty years prior. Many of the members of the Kwi tribe look up to her as a mother figure to include Tshembe and his brothers. When they were all young, she taught them and acted towards them as a surrogate mother. She is outraged by the encroaching colonial military, led by Major George Rice and pushes Tshembe into joining the revolution. This leads to her untimely death during the initial hostilities.
- Dr. Willy Dekovan: A dark complexioned doctor in his mid to late forties who has been part of the Mission for twelve years. He carries himself with a lofty air as he is hyper aware of how terrible the situation is and has essentially numbed himself to it. Though he has an affinity for alcohol he is one of the wisest characters in the play. He shows himself to be very brave and compassionate while also seeming like he has given up. He acknowledges that the Mission, though working with good intentions is actually part of the problem. Lorraine uses Dr. Dekovan as a device for background on the setting: such as that colonial delegations that visited when he had first started working there. He reacts towards Major Rice and his military forces with vehemence and bitter passive-aggressiveness.
- Dr. Marta Gotterling: A young and naïve doctor who is passionate about her job. She is the newest member of the Mission who has only been there five years. Besides the Woman she is the first character shown on the stage. She has an outspoken pride for the creative thriftiness of the Mission Hospital, which we find out from Dr. Dekovan is a naïve obliviousness of the discrimination against the African natives as a white hospital only seventy-five miles away is top of the line. She finds her life to be very fulfilling and she is very protective of the hospital and the Reverend. She has a couple of conversations with Charlie Morris, which are rife with clever quips and sexual tension. Nothing ever comes of it though.
- Charlie Morris: A middle aged journalist from America whom we see first in the opening scene with Marta Gotterling. He is there to report on the growing conflict. He is very idealistic and as such, he is very naïve to the growing conflict between the African natives and the English settlers. He has a nasty penchant for overgeneralizations that Tshembe dismantles in a conversation about the truth behind hate and racism. He looks down on the hospital’s poverty while also being fascinated by it. He carries himself with an air of enlightened superiority while also being very willing to help. He reacts towards Major Rice with blatant defiance. He and Tshembe have a few tense conversations but they manage to find common ground before he leaves.
- Major George Rice: The antagonistic element of the play. He is the leader of the colonial military forces. He represents both the oppressive colonial regime and is a symbol for blatant racism as he is always using racial slurs. He honestly and openly refers to the whites and superior to the Africans and treats them like idiot children. We see this clearly when he is treating Peter like a servant. He is deeply suspicious of anyone who sympathizes with the African natives. Lorrain uses Major Rice to fulfill a few different roles. One is that of off screen exposition (i.e. the action that takes place off-stage), and the other is that of a focus of rising tension. Every scene featuring Major Rice leads to escalation of the conflict in some way; whether blatantly accusing Dr. Dekovan of harboring “terrorists” or by simply informing the characters of an 8:30 curfew. Although he may be the Anatgonist, he is doing everything that he believes is right for the people of Africa. As he mentions in his monologue in Act 1, he is doing this because the times are in demand of a leader against the "terrorists".
- Peter/Ntali: The middle-aged cousin of Tshembe and his brothers and a member of the resistance. While speaking with Tshembe he speaks completely normal but while dealing with white characters such as Charlie and Rice he uses varying degrees of speech stereotypical of natives; such as replacing “Th” with “D” for example. He confronts Tshembe while he is attempting to sort cloth and tries to encourage him, not only to join the resistance but to lead it. He also informs Tshembe that his father was part of the resistance before his death. Whether this is true or not, it has a profound effect on Tshembe. In the end Peter, dies at the hand of Major Rice and a firing squad. This is one of the turning points that leads to Tshembe joining the resistance.
- Ngago: A charismatic war leader first seen in the scene in which Peter confronts Tshembe. The sixth scene of act two is composed completely of Ngago’s monologue. This monologue serves two purposes: one is it is a war cry for the people narratively speaking, the other is to inform the reader (or audience member), that the escalation has reach a turning point. The monologue takes place immediately after the death of Peter.
Influential Off-screen Characters
- Amos Kumalo: An African ambassador to England and a charismatic figure. One of the breaking points in the narrative is when he is arrested off-screen under the charge of “conspiracy.” This outrages the entire cast.
- Reverend Nielson: The leader of the mission and the husband to the surrogate mother figure Madame Nielson. He dies off screen; a victim of the mounting conflict.
- Modingo (He Who Thinks Carefully Before He Acts): The main protagonist of a children’s fable told to Tshembe by Peter in an attempt to recruit him. In the fable, Modingo is a Hyena who is caught in a conflict between Hyenas and Elephants. Modingo decides to listen to both sides before he takes one. He was too slow to act and the Elephants forced the Hyenas out of their home as a result. This is why the Hyena has such a bitter laugh, being the butt of a joke played on them. Peter is drawing a comparison between Tshembe and Modingo.
Production and reception
The title is a reference to Jean Genet's play The Blacks: A Clown Show. The play is about the experience of settlers, natives, and one American journalist in an unnamed African country in the waning days of colonial control.
Hansberry originally planned to have a female protagonist, but revised the play so the only black woman has no name and no lines, referred to only as "woman".
The 1970 Broadway production at the Longacre Theatre was nominated for two Tony Awards, for Best Costumes and Lili Darvas was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Play her performance as Madame Neilsen. James Earl Jones received a Drama Desk Award for his performance.
A new production of Les Blancs will play at the National Theatre, London, from March 2016.
In March of 2018, California State University of Sacramento's Department of Theatre & Dance did a production of Les Blancs in their Playwright's Theater that ran for 2 weeks.
Published 4 years after Hansberry’s death, compiled and edited by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff from incomplete drafts, Hansberry considered Les Blancs her most important play. Les Blancs is the only play of many left behind after her death that Nemiroff finished and adapted into a final version.
Hansberry attributed her interest in colonialism as beginning when she watched newsreel footage of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, and her mother telling her that the Pope had ordained the invasion. After taking courses on African history and culture underneath WEB DuBois, Hansberry went on to work for Paul Robeson’s newspaper Freedom. Here she worked alongside Africans and African Americans working towards liberation, influencing the ideas that would later become Les Blancs.
Hansberry began writing Les Blancs in 1960 after having what her husband called a “visceral response” upon seeing the U.S. production of Jean Genet's Les Negres (The Blacks). Feeling the Frenchman’s view of colonialism as too rooted in a romantic exoticism of Africa, she hoped to write a more realistic account of African colonialism and the issues of power, politics, and identity that came with it.
Hansberry spent years working on Les Blancs, constantly rewriting and editing, taking it with her to and from hospital visits as her health deteriorated. Hansberry took what would later become Act I scene iii to the Actor's Studio Writer's Workshop where, encouraged by the response, she witnessed the only performance of Les Blancs to happen in her lifetime. Using Nemiroff as her sounding board and editor, she almost completed the play before her death. Using notes from her collection, discussions they’d had about the work together, and at times creating some of his own dialogue to fill the gaps, her husband spent years working on it before release.
Rape is present throughout this story. Tshembe won’t be friends with Charlie, an American journalist, because of the country he represents. No matter how much Charlie wants to help, Tshembe won’t let him play down the abuse they’ve exercised over his people. Major Rice is the perfect example in how he raped Tshembe’s mother to produce Eric. Tshembe is forced to deal with his own family being raped, and his people being abused by white America. This manifests itself with the Rice example but also applies to the way in which America has come in to “save” the country. They are oppressing the people and forcefully removing them from their traditions while trying to assimilate them into more Americanized desires. Tshembe’s unrest toward Charlie has to do with the systemic violence that literally and metaphorically rapes his country.
Tshembe struggles to find his identity. He is well traveled and well learned, but has trouble making sense of his life. He doesn’t know where he should take his stand. Whether or not he should live for himself and exercise his freedom by staying in Europe and living for what makes him happy, his wife and son. His nation is fighting a war that almost guarantees his death if he returns to fight with them. Participating in political action in Europe and other colonizing nations is frustratingly useless. Tshembe is tired of talk but doesn’t know where to stand because of how much each decision would cost him. He finally decides to fight for his nation and give his life to die there. Tshembe kills his brother Abioseh placing his alliance with the natives, and beginning the end of the fantasy of colonized peace.
Assimilation is a present theme amongst the three brothers: Tshembe, Abioseh, and Eric. Abioseh is fully assimilated into western culture by becoming a Catholic Priest. He is preaching “white mans” gospel which is contrary to the message of salvation of his own people. Adopting the religion, and even worse becoming a preacher of it, is the farthest one can go in disowning his own people, or so Tshembe thinks. For most of the story Tshembe operates in a middle ground between Eric and Abioseh. Tshembe is well educated, and well traveled, but used his education to fight for political support of his people. The story ends with him joining the native rebels complicating this middle ground stance. Eric resists assimilation completely as he isn’t educated and spends most of his time living the native life and getting drunk. The back and forth of Tshembe and Abioseh seem foreign to him and his simple pursuit of life in the village.
The ideals for ending the war and violence are completely different between Dekoven, and Tshembe vs. Charlie. We see this in the revolution and the conversations between Dekoven and Charlie. Dekoven explains to Charlie that the issue and the hatred of the Black man is not that they are lazy like most of America thinks, but that they refuse to work for them and live for the same things they do. As Charlie condemns the rampant killings that the rebels are resorting to Tshembe defends it as the only way for the world to pay attention, the only reason Charlie himself is there right now. Charlie represents the heart of a white man that cares but the ignorance of a culture that can’t understand the systemic unchanging oppression.
Hansberry, Lorraine: “ Blancs: the Collected Last Plays.” Random House Inc. New York, NY: 1972. Print Borrios, Olga: “The Intellectual Spear: Lorraines Hansberry’s Les Blanks,” Revista de Associacion Espanol de Estudios Ingleses y Norteamericanos, 1996. (1-2) pgs 28-36. Journal Article.