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The Les Blancs Adventure
As soon as I was confirmed, Yaël and I knew time was of the essence. It was late December, and we would be starting rehearsals at the beginning of February. (To compare, Yaël and I started discussions on Salomé two years before rehearsals began; this was two months.) Yaël introduced me via email to Joi Gresham, playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s stepdaughter and literary executor, who wrangled me an invitation to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a special wing of the New York Public Library in Harlem. I trekked up in early January, gathered up all the material on Les Blancs. Later that month, the National’s New Work Department sponsored an exploratory “workshop” so the three of us could meet in Montreal to discuss the drafts and the form Hansberry was reaching toward when she died.
Montreal featured days of discussion during which we got through about half of the material I had found in Harlem. Joi shared a nugget of wisdom that has been one of our guiding principles. Lorraine, Joi observed, was many things, but she was first and foremost a humanist, someone incapable of writing an irredeemable character. Therein lies the play’s hope.
Hansberry was also, as I discovered at the Schomburg Center, someone who was passionately engaged in the political arguments of her time. She wrote Les Blancs at a moment when many despairing American blacks were turning away from pacifism and toward increasingly militant separatism. The play is set in a composite version of Africa, at a mission compound founded by well-intentioned Europeans, a location which somehow manages to become symbolic of all the pain caused by racism and colonialism over the past three centuries: the cultural deprivations of the Middle Passage; the genocidal agonies of colonialism; three centuries of plunder of the black body.
Hansberry has become such a secular saint because of A Raisin in the Sun that it is easy to lose sight of her radicalism. She was close friends with James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Langston Hughes. Hers was the America of Eisenhower and Kennedy, but it was also a segregated society, of Jim Crow laws in the south. Her era was the very early days of black nationalism, of Malcolm Little becoming Malcolm X, of Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali, of LeRoi Jones becoming Amiri Baraka. In the arguments between the white and black characters in Les Blancs, Hansberry captures and dramatizes this schism. Yes, everyone is human, she seems to be saying, but attention must be paid.
2. Rehearsal and the text: honoring Lorraine and Robert Nemiroff
This dynamic has been the central tension of our work in rehearsal over the past four weeks – of walking the line between Hansberry’s political brilliance and her redemptive faith in the virtuous qualities of humanity. The play both argues for the necessity for violent revolution and acknowledges the tragic inevitability of the violence to come. It does not suggest retributive violence is the answer, but it does not deny that pain and suffering often lead to more of the same.
In order to stage Les Blancs, one must also be conscious of its unfinished nature. Hansberry died in 1965, revising the play from her hospital bed. The play was a source of both passionate commitment and frustration for her; she regarded it as potentially her most important work, and struggled mightily to birth it, even as she was dying. Aware she was short on time, Hansberry insisted others complete her vision. “If anything should happen before ’tis done,” her final journal entry reads, “may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts.”
In 1969, Hansberry’s surviving former husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff performed the vital task of gathering all of the extant drafts into a comprehensive production text. Able to rehearse the play, Robert was afforded what Lorraine did not have: the blessing of time, the opportunity to hear her words being spoken, the chance to see how things “read” on the stage instead of the page. This, a crucial stage in every playwright’s process, was one denied to her.
Every production, then, has to honor not only Hansberry, but also the extraordinary dedication of Nemiroff. This production’s text is the product of months of collaboration between Yaël Farber, Joi Gresham, and myself. Over the past four weeks, Yaël and I, with Joi’s input and support, have been reliant on the intelligence and understanding of the actors in the room, as we have learned how to tell the story. All along, we have sworn by the Hippocratic Dramaturgical Oath: to first do no harm, but also to clarify the shape. Above all, we have sought to illuminate the text rather than interfere or otherwise impose meanings that aren’t there.
3. Crisis Drama
The other, important aspect of our process has been to focus on precisely how classical this play is. That is to say, how Greek it is, how radical, on a formal level, Les Blancs is and was designed to be. Every draft of Lorraine’s that I consulted in the Schomburg Center was a Crisis Drama, a specific kind of subgenre unique to works such as The Oresteia and Oedipus Rex. (It was later copied by the French neoclassicists and Ibsen, but that is a digression.) In technical terms, time is compressed, resulting in a real-time action and a limited number of locations. There is a late point of attack: the events are arranged artfully by the playwright to begin just before the crisis, the inflection-point of the narrative, strikes home. The characters (and audience) don’t know it yet, but an event of world-shaking proportion is just around the corner.
Yaël, Joi, and I arrived at this breakthrough on our last day in Montreal, and discussions continued into our rehearsal in London. What has evolved is a text that, without changing a word from Hansberry or Nemiroff, compresses the play’s action back down to a crisis drama timeline, without losing any of the epic thematic sweep of the action. While listening closely to what’s there, we have heard Hansberry’s daring engagement with the classical tradition, her use of models from the Greeks to Shakespeare to the greatest 19th-century dramatists. The closer we have looked, the more we have glimpsed the theatre of symbols lying beneath the minutiae of its realism, the Greek “tug” within the work, the larger the sweep of its semantic meaning has become.
I fly back on Sunday. It’s agonizing to miss the last crucial week and a half of rehearsals, but I am returning in late March for previews, and I have absolute faith in Yaël’s vision for the production, her acute understanding of the material, her ability to land the plane. The task is a great one – this play is as big in some ways as the National, and there are many moving pieces. But Yaël and Joi, from day one, have understood that it is a modern Greek epic worthy of the Olivier stage, worthy of standing alongside the giants from the western tradition that it invokes so boldly. It is a play that demands on having the most difficult conversations, and like a great Shakespearean play it functions as both a political drama, a social drama, a family drama all in one. It is a play of great potential power. And theatre is all about turning potential into momentary, special, fleeting reality.