Review: ‘Les Blancs’ Is an Anguished Play for an Anguished Moment


Farber is a powerful director, not a subtle one. But the play, unfinished and purposefully unresolved, has a way of sidestepping easy moral judgment. Not that Hansberry indulges relativism or both-sides-ism. She portrays whiteness, not blackness, as the “other,” and refuses to see the revolution as more violent than the regime that provokes it.

Charlie’s character, a seeming audience surrogate, has to reckon with his own blinkered perspective and culpability. “White rule, Black rule, they’re not very different,” he tells Tshembe.

“I don’t know, Mr. Morris,” Tshembe says. “We haven’t had much chance to find out.”

If “Les Blancs” ultimately argues that any means, including violence, may be necessary to overthrow oppression, the argument isn’t a happy one. The play ends in fire and death and a howl of absolute anguish. Set in an invented African nation, it reflects on America, too. Tshembe has traveled in America, in the South, particularly. He has no admiration for what he calls “American apartheid.”

In 1970, that parallel terrified many Broadway critics. The Variety reviewer Hobe Morrison reduced the play’s message to “revolution and that ghetto slogan, ‘kill whitey.’” John Simon said that it works to “justify the slaughter of whites by blacks.” But Clayton Riley, a Black critic, argued that the play rather offers something of Hansberry herself, of a brilliant mind “struggling to make sense out of an insane situation, aware — way ahead of the rest of us — that there is no compromise with evil, there is only the fight for decency.”

That prescience that Riley identified persists, as does the moral clarity of Hansberry’s questions — questions that still don’t have answers. Watching “Les Blancs,” I wondered what Hansberry would have made of the upheavals of the present and about the play she might have written in response. We don’t have that play. We do have this one.

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