From Martin Luther King to Huey Newton and Malcolm X: the African-American struggle for equality has never been fought with a single voice. A new production of a near-forgotten play introduces what to many will be a new voice: the African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Her dark, lacerating and loquacious drama “Les Blancs”, which is being staged at the National Theatre in London, offers a sideways look at the tensions of the civil-rights movement. Written shortly before her death in 1965 and first performed in 1970, it is set in a fictional African colony during a bloody nationalist uprising. But it can also be read, today as in the 1960s, as a statement about what was happening back home.
Were Hansberry alive today, she might well have been a member of Black Lives Matter, the contemporary civil-rights movement notable for its female leadership and feminist thrust – a far cry from the hypermasculine Black Power of her day. She was the first African-American woman to have a play staged on Broadway, in 1959, with “A Raisin in the Sun”, a ground-breaking drama about a black family set in simmering postwar Chicago that echoed her family’s experience of informal segregation there. It prompted her friend James Baldwin, the African-American novelist and intellectual, to declare that she had managed to “put more of the truth of black people’s lives on the stage than any other playwright in the entire history of theatre.” She became the youngest winner of the New York Critics’ Play of the Year award, at the age of 29.
In “Les Blancs”, Hansberry shifted her attention overseas and engaged directly with the politics of African nationalism, especially the violent kind seen in colonial Kenya. The play is littered with allusions to the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, a bloody insurgency that left thousands dead. But the Shakespearean meditation on the ethics of violent action (the wavering protagonist, Tshembe Matoseh, who ultimately ends up leading the rebellion, bears a strong likeness to Hamlet) was read by many in America as a call to arms. In the final analysis the play seems to offer a rebuke to Martin Luther King’s doctrine of nonviolence and the white sympathisers who embraced it. “Where were you when we protested without violence and against violence?” Tshembe asks of the play’s sole American character, Charlie Morris, a liberal white journalist. Absent, is the implicit answer.
But Morris’s ultimate conversion to the nationalist cause hints at Hansberry’s faith in the value of white participation in the struggle. She was, in the end, an integrationist who believed oppression cuts across race lines – just like love. Her husband, Robert Nemiroff, was a Jewish songwriter; they met while protesting against New York University’s all-white basketball team. Her support for the Mau Mau rebels, and acceptance of the need for political violence in America, did not preclude sympathy with whites at home or abroad. “Les Blancs” is peopled with white characters of varying moral hues. Both sides of the racial divide are compromised; both can be redeemed.
Yaël Farber’s production is careful not to trumpet the play’s American resonances. She glosses over the parallels between African nationalism and the American civil-rights movement, and the restrained realism of Soutra Gilmour’s staging strives for a kind of colonial (read generic) authenticity. The effect of this, though, is to highlight the words, and what was arguably Hansberry’s most important contribution to the civil-rights movement: a new literary aesthetic. In “Les Blancs” Hansberry employed a classical European form – tragedy – and “Africanised” it. A Greek chorus incants tribal verse; Kikuyu fables echo Greek dramatic tropes. Tshembe is at once Hamlet and Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of Kenyan nationalism. “Les Blancs” laid much of the groundwork for what became the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, with its “Afrocentric” pursuit of a uniquely black aesthetic (though Hansberry was always more interested in achieving some kind of synthesis). After her death, hundreds of African-American theatre companies sprang into existence across the US, dedicated to the idea of black drama.
But it was Hansberry’s fate to be largely forgotten outside of America and the literary academy. In time her younger friend, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, came to overshadow her in popular memory. Waymon, or Nina Simone as she became known, met Hansberry in New York in the late 1950s; she, too, was taken under the wing of James Baldwin, who noticed in her an angry, precocious intelligence and a kindred political spirit. But it was Hansberry who nudged Simone away from Motown towards firebrand politics and protest. The result was “Mississippi Goddam” (1964), a scalding microhistory of oppression in the American South. She was soon proclaimed the voice of the Black Power movement.
After Hansberry died Simone memorialised her in “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, an uplifting anthem for the civil-rights era. The title was coined by Hansberry herself and based on a play posthumously pieced together from her uncollected writings. It was, then, here, in an R&B classic, that the memory of Lansberry was laid to rest. And it is here that her memory has since languished. This production is intended as a corrective. And at a time when racial tension is bubbling in America, with Trump-affiliated white supremacy uncoiling on the political stage, it’s a timely one. This is an important piece of restoration, and a chastening one.
Les Blancs National Theatre, London, until June 2nd