On January 13, UChicago Assistant Professor Tina Post and dramaturg Gabrielle Randle-Bent provided an overview of Lorraine Hansberry and her work. Here are 5 key takeaways from their discussion.
1. Hansberry’s Death
Les Blancs was her magnum opus. She had been working on it for about four or five years before she died; it was left unfinished when she suddenly died from pancreatic cancer. Her former husband, dramaturg Robert Nemiroff, finished the play for her. Nemiroff also worked with producer Andrew Cohen and Ozzy Davis to finish it.
The play is set mainly at the mission, a hospital compound founded by Reverend Neilson forty years before. At the beginning of the play, reporter Charlie Morris arrives to do a report on the mission. There, he meets Marta (a white doctor), Willie DeKoven (another white doctor; disillusioned idealist), and Madame Neilson. Tshembe returns home after the death of his father, who he discovers was part of the resistance of Africans against white colonial powers, and meets his two brothers again after years abroad. Tensions within the country escalate further during his visit and confront Tshembe with questions about his allegiance and loyalty to his country.
3. Timelessness of Abstraction
The setting is an unnamed African country; in one draft, the playwright notes it could be set anytime within the next decade or so, a testament to how contemporary the play remains. As niece of Leo Hansberry, a scholar of African history and politics, Hansberry was knowledgeable about the status of Africa during her career as a scholarly activist and author. Despite her knowledge, she chose to write about an unnamed African country. She demands an abstraction of the African people in her play. Productions try to interpret who and what every choice of the author means. The play’s themes can be applied and is relevant to many contemporary situations in other countries as well.
4. Hansberry as a Revolutionary
She was a member of labor-organizing groups, communist groups, and leftist groups. Her position was that Black people needed to be seen and heard and given the opportunities that everyone else was given. She portrayed injustices and identity struggles in her work. Les Blancs includes her view of the U.S. as an oppressive colonial power and a guiding force in the world that was changing.
Tshembe, in early drafts, was a woman named Candace, a character Hansberry wrote in as herself as someone who sees the city as her own. She is present in other characters as well, such as Eric, a mixed-race, queer, young revolutionary, though Tshembe holds her voice in entirety. His turn to revolution was a central question in her life, which included such concerns as she grew that revolved around whether she was a revolutionary and how she could hold onto that and how it changed with her experiences.
Want to learn more about Lorraine Hansberry’s incredible play, Les Blancs? Tune into our next Theatre & Thought session!