A lost classic

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Let's be honest. Most of the time when someone tells you they have discovered a "lost classic," you know there's a very good reason it was forgotten. So when I heard that Rogue Machine Theatre was doing the Los Angeles premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's 1965 play Les Blancs I was a little skeptical.

Like most theater folks, I know Ms. Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun but had never read, much less seen, Les Blancs. The title, French for "the whites," gives a hint to the play's origins. Apparently, Ms. Hansberry went to see the French playwright Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show and had such a visceral reaction to Genet's view of colonialism she had to write a response.

Les Blancs is set in Africa midway through the last century. We're at a rundown missionary hospital that has a remarkable reputation. One so great that a journalist from America, Charlie, has arrived to write an article or maybe a book about its good deeds. This writer is one of our twin protagonists - the white one. The black one, Tshembe arrives fresh from Europe in a suit coat and short hair. He's returned to honor his recently departed father - who was something of a tribal elder.

We'll follow these two men, Charlie and Tshembe, through a series of tense conversations as they both discover the state of their respective tribes.

The white tribe is a scotch swilling cadre of do-gooder doctors. They've come to Africa with a missionary zeal, or at least so it would seem. Then, there’s the military captain who's motives seem a bit more problematic - although that may be understandable what with the black "terrorists" killing whites in their homes. Everyone is a little on edge, hence the Scotch.

The native black tribe isn't fairing much better. Tshembe has returned to honor his father along with his two brothers. His oldest brother has become a Roman-Catholic priest and wants nothing to do with the pagan face paint and rituals. The family, and the culture, is at a crossroads. The old order is dead but who step up to lead into the future? And how?

The play is an exploration of the history and politics that have brought these two tribes together - and before you get too comfortable thinking it's just about Africa, think again. What's stunning about the play, and in particular this production directed brilliantly by Gregg T. Daniel, is the complicated nuance. This is not a simple political play with clear motives and easily defined morality. To risk the pun, it’s more complicated than black and white. It's an ensemble play with characters caught in complicated webs of history and intention who are all trying to do the right thing, even when it’s wrong. This is a play that's going to disturb you, regardless of your politics or skin color.

That's a testament to the caliber of Ms. Hansberry's writing but also to the truly stellar 20 person cast. If you're looking for an argument for Los Angeles' intimate theaters and their artistry, look no further. Here's a play that wouldn't be done at a larger theater both because of it's politics and cast size - that’s beautifully produced in a small theater.

Les Blancs is a play that, were it written by a white playwright, would be considered one of the classics of the 20th century. Don't miss this chance to see it.

Les Blancs plays at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Hollywood through July 3.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: two hours and thirty minutes with an intermission.

Photo by John Perrin Flynn