Flip the Script Friday: Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs

Really disliking these blocks on WordPress. They just make everything so clunky and hard to edit. I found time this week to read at least part of a script. It was quite interesting, especially since its playwright didn’t live to see its completion.

That’s So Jacob Presents: Flip the Script Friday

Episode #45: Lorraine Hansberry, Les Blancs

Image Credit: Amazon.com

The Basics

Les Blancs premiered on 15 November 2007 at Broadway’s Longacre Theatre. It was produced by Konrad Matthaei. The final text was finished from Hansberry’s notes by Robert Nemiroff. Notable actors in the premiere production included James Earl Jones as Tshembe and Earle Hyman as Abioseh.

Characters

  • Dr. Marta Gotterling – young doctor, white, of Scandinavian origin
  • Peter – young African servant
  • Charlie Morris – young reporter from America
  • Dr. Willy DeKoven – older doctor, from the Netherlands
  • Major George Rice – older man, American, major in the US Army
  • Madame Neilsen – elderly woman of Scandinavian origin, wife of the unseen Reverend Neilsen
  • Eric – young African man who works at the compound
  • Tshembe Matoseh – brother of Eric who has just returned from studying in Europe and America
  • Abioseh Matoseh – brother of Eric and Tshembe who is more traditional.
  • Ngago
  • Other minor characters including Drummers, The Woman, African Child, Soldier, Prisoner, African villagers.

Setting/Plot

“Yesterday/today/tomorrow – but not very long after that.” A mission compound and a tribal hut in an unnamed African country. An extensive opening sequence leads us to the compound, where reporter Charlie Morris arrives just as Dr. Marta Gotterling is finishing with a patient. Charlie then meets the rest of the staff and residents of the compound – DeKoven, Rice, and Madame Neilsen, as well as Eric, a servant. Upon hearing drumming, DeKoven and Rice bring up terrorism, but Madame Neilsen determines that it is just ritual funerary drumming. We learn this to be true, as the father of the Matoseh brothers – Eric, Tshembe (recently returned from a trip around the world where he has become a Christian) and Abioseh (who is more into traditional tribal beliefs). Despite a curfew, Tshembe shows up at the compound to check in with Madame Neilsen and the rest, only to be admonished and castigated publicly by Rice for not observing the curfew. This is followed by a conversation between Charlie and Tshembe, each trying to figure out the real story of the other.

Major Themes

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I know that the description was borderline confusing, but the play was borderline confusing. A lot of key details are only referred to and not seen onstage. This includes Kevin being beat up by Merv and his gang and the wedding of Jamie and Krista. I suppose this adds to the element of mystery and is due to the fact that we can’t include literally everything that happens to these characters onstage, but I felt like the details pertaining to who exactly Merv is (other than, as they refer to him once or twice “Merv the perv”) and what his deal is with Jamie and Kevin, why they’re enemies. We also don’t see too much of Chicky’s backstory. She’s a badass who has dealt with a lot, from unwanted advances from basically every male except Jamie, which includes her father, Clarence, and Kevin, who may or may not be related to her, as we find out. Instead, we hear a lot about it, and at times it feels like Chicky’s giving us a lot more than we are seeing, and we have to just hope that she is reliable in what she is saying. The scene between her and Clarence attests to the fact that she is probably telling the truth, but it’s almost as if she reveals too much information as there’s not as much visual context.

Waiting For…

This brings me to my next point, which is the obvious presence of absent characters. Some are ostensibly absent, like Travis, who is dead, and Chicky’s mother, who has abandoned the family. However, we also don’t see Earl, the boss, or the infamous Merv. Most notably, we hear a lot about a certain character who never shows up but clearly has quite an impact on one of the onstage characters; Reg, an older, married man, who employs Robby and has been involved with Chicky ever since her early teens, almost as young as Lissa. Chicky is so headstrong, and despite teasing Jamie, is his mother figure, and is protective of the younger and more vulnerable characters, showing sisterhood to Krista (even when she is being a bridezilla), civility and attention to Robby, and being a safety guard for the young and impressionable Lissa. Chicky can be a smart-aleck but she seems to know more than anyone else, and is the most down-to-earth and practical…yet her dreams and aspirations are viewed as a joke by everyone else. This is exacerbated at the not one, but two scenes where she is waiting for Reg, who of course, does not show up. Her fatal flaw is that she is attracted to a man who, despite what he says about his marriage, is not going to leave his wife and be with her. Unlike all the other characters, she does not know that waiting for him is useless because he will never show up.

I Guess This is Growing Up

My final major theme is that of growing up, or lack thereof. It’s obvious that Chicky has been thrust into the role of parent, basically raising her younger half-brother Jamie, and that Krista, who dreams of being Jamie’s wife, is more into playing at being an adult than actually being one, leaving Jamie somewhere in between. With his desire to clone Travis and somehow eliminate the future “new Travis’s” brain tumor, Clarence is holding on to a memory and acting like the very child he lost and is obsessed with. Lissa, the youngest character in the play, is entranced by adulthood in two ways: by Krista, only three years older than her but already a bride, and by Kevin, who makes romantic advances on her. Even though Kevin stops before he does anything immoral or regretful, getting up off of Lissa and sending her home before they do anything, Lissa is smitten with him, which she shows in the monologue section of the photo session scene, with her monologue that is basically all of her thoughts about sex. When Jamie and Chicky piece together what Clarence has been doing, they confront him, telling him to grow up and act like the father he should be, and on the flip side, Chicky emphasizes to Kevin that Lissa is still a child, and even though she and Reg have had a physical relationship since her early teens, that Lissa, being “slow,” is way more vulnerable than she was, and warns him not to engage with her, at the risk of giving her signals she does not understand which could lead Lissa to a dangerous place.

My Thoughts

As much as parts of it confused me – for instance, the scene where Jamie and Kevin are putting on dresses and makeup for a stag party, and the sexual aspects of Merv and his “gang” – I kept reading just to see how this gritty Gothic tale would turn out. I kept thinking of a combination of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Naomi Wallace’s The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek; the former, because of a main character living in his own world, contemplating moving across the country, and the chopping down of trees, and the latter, with the country aesthetics and father/son relationships, as well as the railroad which dominates the landscape. Also, my current read is John Green’s Looking for Alaska, and though I’m only about a quarter of the way through, I am picturing the gang in that book as similar to the unseen Merv and his gang.

How I’d Flip It

Much like the cover of the book, I’m seeing some sort of tree design, maybe with moveable flats in front of a backdrop that looks like the sun in the sky, but is really the eye of an eagle, symbolizing both endangerment of the environment, and the eagle Jamie nurses back to health and releases into the wild. A lot of what I saw in various production photos included wood or faux-wood logs and stumps as furniture. I’m not sure I would make it super “campfire” but I would definitely accent everything in wood.

For costumes/appearance, I’m thinking a lot of earth tones in sepia and tan, and navy blue. Much of the colors are described by Banks in the text, but one thing I would definitely avoid would be camo; just too stereotypical. I picture Clarence and possibly Jamie in plaid; Chicky in typical “woodsy girl” attire with a t-shirt and jeans; and Krista in some kind of short-sleeve baseball tee with cutoffs. For Kevin, I picture a lot of solid navy blue, and for Robby, a slightly more formal outfit in forest green. Lissa is harder to pin down; in various production photos, she was in a dress and pigtails, but I see her in something a little less frilly, like denim overalls and a pink short, with glasses. The women’s hairstyles are really clear in my mind. I see Chicky with a bleached blond, sculptured buzz cut; Krista in long brown curls, with an updo for the wedding scene; and Lissa with a short bob, almost making a mullet at her ears.

For the wedding scene, obviously the men’s outfits and Krista’s wedding dress are what they are. However, I would see a change for the other two women. The playwright indicates that their dresses are fuchsia, but I would incorporate a different style for each. For Lissa, I would give her more of a little girl look, with a flouncy skirt and a little jacket, as if she is playing dress up, and for Chicky, I see her in an uncharacteristically feminine outfit that is an extreme contrast to her normal attire, with a sweetheart neckline and a structured bodice, but a length that is short enough for her to rock some black biker-y boots. Something to accentuate the fact that even though she is rough, she isn’t one of the guys and is feminine in more than a motherly way.

And finally, as I was reading, the song “Gives You Hell” by All-American Rejects was reverberating in my head, possibly for a video teaser or to appear somewhere in the production.

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