Do you want to attend a play by one of America’s premier Black playwrights about racism, colonialism, and violence in Africa — and leave the theater with a satisfying sense of wrong and right?
Then don’t buy a ticket for “Les Blancs,” written by Lorraine Hansberry, presented by local theater group EgoPo Oct. 25 through Nov. 5 at Christ Church Neighborhood House.
“She doesn’t come up with a spoon and say, `Open up. I’ll give you an easy answer.’” explained South African actor Lungile Lallie, 25, who plays the lead.
“She doesn’t send us home feeling secure in what we ought to know,” Lallie said, speaking during rehearsals for the show, which features a combined troupe of local and South African actors.
What theatergoers can expect is an immersion into politics, race, family dynamics, and a sense of Africa that begins the moment they step off the elevator onto the fourth floor of the Old City performance venue.
There’ll be African sambusas, prepared by Alif Brew, the Ethiopian coffee shop on Baltimore Avenue, accompanied by South African wines, popcorn seasoned with African spices, and Amarula, a South African cream liqueur made from the fruit of the marula tree.
Inside the theater, the audience walks right through the set, designed to evoke the decaying remnants of colonialism. They’ll find themselves in a colonial missionary clinic, where the play takes place. Live African drumming from percussionist Karen Smith and period string music composed by Jay Ansill add to the atmosphere, and the set designers have even found a way to incorporate the scents of Africa.
Once the play begins, the action will occur around the audience. As tension builds, the audience may experience it as well.
Lallie plays Tshembe Matoseh, the son of a Kiwi chief. Educated in London with a European wife, Tshembe is returning to a fictitious country in Africa to see his ailing father.
When Tshembe arrives in Africa, he finds upheaval.
A white military commander vows to defeat the terrorist members of the African resistance. Tshembe’s older brother, leaving traditional African ways for the Catholic church, believes prayer and negotiations are the answer. His younger brother, half-white and perhaps the son of the military commander, wants to join those who have lost patience with prayer and talk.
There is the blind, elderly white wife of a longtime missionary and two white doctors, one idealistic, the other cynical. A Black caretaker has a secret role, as does Tshembe’s father. And questioning everything is a white American journalist.
Tshembe himself is deeply torn.
“Lorraine exposes all the complexities in this fictional African country that is in the brink of independence — between revolutionaries and the colonial powers at the time,” Lallie said.
“There are so many different perspectives. It is only in this uniquely porous and complicated way that Lorraine does so well that we can begin to make sense of this harrowing situation. She’s unflinching — fearless and brave and unflinching in her approach,” he said. “The perspectives she presents are contradictory. They are extreme, they are bold, they are unwavering.”
Under the circumstances, the actor said, “it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around who would have the capacity and the authority to decipher what is absolute right and what is absolute wrong.”
Lallie, who gained a love for theater as a youngster by competing in poetry contests in a small town on the South African coast, sees his country and the United States, both grappling with issues of race, as cousins. “We share a similar history of slavery, a similar history of segregation — Jim Crow laws here and apartheid in South Africa. There are very distinct parallels between the two countries.”
He finds it intriguing that his country, which he says could be considered a developing nation by some, has managed to avoid some of the conflicts so prevalent here.
“We don’t have electricity half of the time,” he said. “But book bans — it’s inconceivable to us. That’s such a terrifying thing that Americans grapple with. The fact that reproductive rights are still a conversation [here]… That’s inconceivable to us. It’s a no-brainer.”
Lallie considers “Les Blancs” to be Hansberry’s finest work. “We can be grateful that we see her at her most articulate, her wittiest, her bravest,” he said.
Hansberry, best known for “A Raisin in the Sun,” conceived “Les Blancs” as a counterpoint to French playwright Jean Genet’s 1959 play, “Les Nègres.” She worked on it as she was dying, and her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, pieced together a final script from her incomplete drafts. It debuted in New York in 1970, five years after her death.
Philadelphia’s EgoPo Classic Theater is presenting “Les Blancs” in collaboration with Abrahamse and Meyer Productions of Cape Town, South Africa.
The play is co-directed by Fred Abrahamse from South Africa and longtime Philadelphia theater professional Damien J. Wallace, who also plays Abioseh Matoseh, Tshembe’s older brother.
Expect African music, food, and beverages at “Les Blancs,” EgoPo Classic Theater and Abrahamse and Meyer Productions. Oct. 25-Nov. 5, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., 267-273-1414 or egopo.org