Tonight I went to a reading of Lorraine Hansberry's play Les Blancs. The reading was sponsored by New Perspectives Theatre Company as part of their "On Her Shoulders" series featuring underperformed works by female playwrights.
Hansberry was in part inspired to write the piece as a reaction to Jean Genet's play The Blacks, though it reminded me much more of Danai Gurira's The Converts. Both deal with efforts to liberate African countries from colonialism and both feature reluctant, Westernized protagonists who feel compelled to kill innocent people for the sake of a struggle for justice and liberation.
At the time, critics attacked the play for being didactic and for calling on blacks to kill white people. The play is most certainly not didactic, though it does depict (not disapprovingly) blacks killing white people. However, given how Hansberry goes out of her way to make the victims as sympathetic as possible, her aim seems to be to complicate the situation rather than deliver pat answers.
Hansberry wrote the play after the first big wave of African countries becoming independent, but African independence movements were still very much on people's minds at the time. Today, the play does not seem dated, in part because the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan provide a new context for the piece. It asks us: Can Westerners help people in the developing world? Is alleviating suffering just another part of colonialism? Is there a difference between a liberation movement and terrorism?
If Hansberry answers these questions at all, her answers are not very optimistic. She wrote the play while dying of cancer, so perhaps we should not be expecting much optimism from her.
In December, New Perspectives will be doing a reading of Susanna Centlivre's A Bold Stroke for a Wife. I hope to make it to that reading as well.