LES BLANCS

Mid-20th-century colonial Africa serves as a metaphor for the then ongoing American civil rights movement in Lorraine Hansberry’s rarely produced posthumous epic Les Blancs, a Rogue Machine revival that transcends the play’s inherent didacticism to electrifying effect.

It is through the eyes of visiting American journalist Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth) that Hansberry introduces us to an unnamed African country in flux, torn between European colonists who for generations have called it home and natives who intend to reclaim their ancestral birthright as their own.

 Representing les blancs are the grizzled, near-blind Madame Nielson (Anne Gee Byrd), whose husband founded the Catholic mission where physicians Willy Dekovan (Joel Swetow) and Marta Gotterling (understudy Anna Stromberg) offer villagers attentive if paternalistic medical care, and Major George Rice (Bill Brochtrup), the Army officer bent on maintaining a status quo that allows him control over a land he considers his own.

Unfortunately for les blancs, there is no denying that long before the arrival of the white man, Africa belonged to les noirs, represented here by a trio of brothers who could hardly be more dissimilar.

Eldest sibling Abioseh Matoseh (Matt Orduña) has become so Westernized, he now wears the collar and cross of a Catholic priest.

Teenaged Eric (Aric Floyd), the product of his mother’s extramarital interracial liaison, is a budding alcoholic torn between two worlds.

Most significantly, middle son Tshembe (Desean Kevin Terry) has left behind in England a Caucasian wife and mixed-race child in order to attend the funeral of his recently deceased tribal chief father, and must now decide where his own future lies, in Europe or in his native land.

Characters’ speechifying can make Les Blancs a bit of a tough go at times, and this reviewer must admit to occasionally tuning out when talk turned didactic.

Still, Les Blancs’ ultimate power is undeniable, particularly as directed to dynamic, pulsating effect by Gregg T. Daniel and performed by a crème-de-la-crème L.A. cast.

Terry makes a sensational Rogue Machine debut as Tshembe, bringing power, pain, and resonance to a man deep in conflict between the life he has made for himself in England, the one he has left behind, and a revolution that tempts him in ghostly form (Shari Gardner, undulating to choreographer Joyce Guy’s seductive African moves).

Indeed there’s hardly a character not at war with him or herself, adding emotional layers to the stellar work being done by Amir Abdullah’s Peter, whose subservience masks a revolutionary propelled as much by revenge as by politics; Brochtrup’s Major Rice, whose love for the land he and those like him have conquered comes at a cost; Floyd’s Eric, whose unknown parentage is just one reason he dulls his senses with alcohol; and Orduña’s Abioseh, whose religious calling represents both commitment and betrayal.

McBeth and Stromberg do equally terrific work as outsiders with, at the very least, the best of intentions.

 Most memorable of all are Swetow’s Dr. DeKoven, disillusioned yet still compassionate after a dozen years in Africa, and Byrd’s Madame Nielsen, whose four decades away from her country of birth may have robbed her of her sight but not of insight into her adopted home.

 Director Daniel surrounds all of the above with a stageful of noirs et blancs*, giving the production an epic scale even as it tells its intimate tales on Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s evocative wood-slatted set, one that along with Wendell C. Carmichael’s stunning array of costumes and Jacquelyn Gutierrez’s of props, Derrick McDaniel’s vibrant lighting, and Jeff Gardner’s striking sound design mosaic and original music transport us to another time, another place, with cheers to Jelani Blunt for the spectacular African drum-beating that serves as both extended prelude and occasional punctuation.

Edgar Landa merits kudos for some realistic fight choreography and Andrea Odinov Fuller for her dialect coaching. Gutierrez is assistant scenic designer.

Les Blancs is produced by John Perrin Flynn and Amanda Bierbauer. Casting is by Victoria Hoffman. Sarah Scott and Inger Tudor are assistant directors.

Ramón Valdez is stage manager. Bierbauer is production manager and David A. Mauer is technical director.

Every bit as relevant and resonant as it was when Lorraine Hansberry first put pen to paper over fifty years ago, Les Blancs can occasionally be a bit of a tough go, but those who accompany its characters on their journey towards its gut-punching climax will be richly rewarded.

*Trevor Bergmann, Roxann Blackman, Turner Frankosky, John Knight, Trenton Lucas, Rosney Mauger, Tarina Pouncy, Raven Taylor, and Francoise Tiadem at the performance reviewed

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Rogue Machine @ The MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Through July 3. Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30. Sundays at 3:00. (No peformances June 16 and 24.) Reservations: 855 585-5185
www.roguemachinetheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
June 5, 2017
Photos: John Perrin Flynn

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