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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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On Dying Young

Earlier this week in class we discussed the short but meaningful and interesting life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry. She was a playwright who is responsible for A Raisin in the Sun, a key play in the history of American theatre. Tackling topics such as family, faith, loyalty, truth, gender roles, Pan-Africanism, and the generation gap, it was a hit on Broadway and is studied in schools and universities all across America. Unfortunately, Hansberry never had the chance to shine again, as her star flickered out in 1956, when she died of pancreatic cancer at age 34.

Her life was short, but it contained the depth that so many other people’s did not, and for that, it is a shame that she died so young. It leads you to ask yourself, “why? Why did Lorraine Hansberry have to go? Was this her only purpose in life? And why did we lose her when so many awful people are still sticking around?”

My views on death have changed over the years. Today, the rational part of my brain says that biological things are strictly biological, humans can be victims of spontaneity, and that everyone has to go sometime – if that didn’t happen, the world would be overpopulated with centenarians, or folks even older. When an older person dies, it seems more appropriate – they’ve had chances to make mistakes, have successes and failures, have relationships and children, and if they’re lucky enough, leave this world in the comfort of a bed, either a hospital’s or their own, regardless of whatever mental/physical conditions they may be suffering from. But the one thing that always stops me in my tracks is when I hear about someone young being killed or dying of disease. Especially someone my age or younger. I always ask myself, “why am I still here when so many promising young people aren’t anymore?”

One of my earliest memories of someone my own age dying was in elementary school. A news story came on one night about a local girl who’d put an ad in her apartment complex’s newsletter with her name and number, offering babysitting services. Upon arrival at the home of what she thought was a family hiring her for the night, it was all a hoax, a set-up for this strange guy, who had no children, to murder her. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the freckled face and long blonde hair that stared at me from inside the television set, and her list of accomplishments: straight As, basketball and soccer player, beloved neighborhood babysitter, and overall, a “good girl.” She was “good people.” Since then, so many people that I know of (or in some cases, know personally) have left us at a young age. To cite some recent examples, whether it’s teenage makeup artist Talia Castellano succumbing to cancer, or thirty-something-but-playing-a-high-schooler actor/singer Cory Monteith overdosing on drugs, the reaction’s always the same.

“What a shame.”

But is it really? Realistically, some people do die young, with or without their consent or control. Death is final and it’s always horrible when it occurs, and sometimes it’s not preventable. I’m not saying that people who died young deserved to die, but in my opinion, maybe it was their “time.” Maybe their death is a way to remember them at their finest moments, and that had they lived any longer, they might have caused pain or hurt to others. For example, the babysitter could’ve grown up and blown up her college campus or assassinated a politician, and Cory Monteith could have been killed in a back-alley drug deal gone bad, or murdered someone under the influence of drugs. Then again, it could be the complete opposite. We will never know what they would’ve done, and we’ll never find out. And I guess that’s the way the world works, the way that God works. He shields and protects us all our lives in so many ways, from allowing us to digest food without choking, vomiting, or exploding; allowing us to get from point A to point B safely, whether it’s on wheels, air, sea, or our own feet; for having that car come to a juddering stop when you run across the street at the last minute, or having you step out of the way just before the piano falls on your head. In a sense, maybe death was a way of protecting them from having a worse fate, or from harming someone else later on down the line.

On the opposite side, some young people shouldn’t be alive after what happened to them, but my some miracle, have remained alive, to serve another purpose. Their time isn’t quite done here yet, and they’re the living proof.

Case in point: Malala Yousafzai.

On 9 December 2012, she was traveling home from school on the bus when two men from the Taliban stormed on, shooting her point blank in the face as well as at her other friends. Miraculously, her friends escaped mostly unhurt, and Malala herself lapsed into a coma, during which time her life was in the balance, with things going either way. She woke up in a hospital in England some time later, and slowly regained her strength and mobility to a full recovery. After she resurfaced, she resumed her activities as an activist for education and peace, and was reportedly a nominee (and a favorite) to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

She didn’t win, but she won her life back.

I watched tonight’s 20/20 special on her and her story, and she said something akin to “death didn’t want to take me yet.” While I wouldn’t put it quite as bluntly as that, she’s right. There’s gotta be something more in the works for her. If she was meant to be some sort of child martyr, it would’ve happened. Children have died before, whether they were activists or just your everyday kid on the school bus.

But Malala didn’t. And that’s a fact.

No matter how murky the story may be, or by whose account was most accurate, the proof is right there in the flesh. Malala didn’t die. It was not her time. Nobody knows if she’ll live to be 19 or 90, but there’s a reason that she’s made it to 16 with all of her faculties, and only some internal and external scars on the way. Just because a person has a strong personality, doesn’t mean that their body chemistry and all their cells and organs are strong too. No matter how strong your will is, you can’t take that force and say “hey bones, tissues, organs, cells…heal up, because it’s time to save the world!” What your body does is not up to you. It is beyond human control and moreover, human comprehension.

When a disaster happens, a common sentiment that arises is that “because of X, I can’t possibly believe that there is a God.” But not enough people look at a situation like Malala Yousafzai and say themselves, “because of this, I can’t possibly believe that there’s not a God.” I am of the latter opinion. Looking at pictures of Malala, reading about her story, and seeing her on my computer and TV screens, makes me think of nothing other than this: God is. Growing up, I learned not to image God as an old man, an old woman, a king, a queen, any person or thing, so I wondered – who is God, if we don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t know what God looks like? I also grew up in the 90s, so my mental playlist is totally queuing up Joan Osborne hardcore right about now, but to get back to the point, I just think that God is. Not exists, but is. In outer space, right here on my couch in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, or just somewhere. Existence is a human concept. Talking about religion is something pretty personal to me, because I’m still figuring things out myself, and I don’t like to impose my views on others, but I feel like I want to make some sort of statement. Something like…even if I can’t see, I believe. Because…why not? Cold hard facts aren’t changed by belief, At the end of the day, Malala is still standing, still speaking, and still working for what she believes in.

Malala Yousafzai comes from a world that is further along in time than Lorraine Hansberry, but less advanced in terms of wealth, rights for women, and educatoinal opportunity. But the facts are the facts. Something was meant to happen to Lorraine Hansberry that was not meant for Malala.

Lorraine Hansberry, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that at least we have that extant sliver of your intelligence and creativity. Even though you died young, you did more in that short time than some people who manage to live into old age.  You must have been destined to do just what you were sent here to do, and then rejoin God to give a full and thorough report.

Malala Yousafzai, your words are an incredible inspiration for us all, and I am so grateful that we have only seen a sliver of your intelligence and creativity. You are meant to do more, and now you have that chance, so go do it. Don’t stop for anyone or anything. Make the world a better place because that’s what you’re here to do. I know you can. I wish I had the courage, strength, and drive that you have, and maybe one day I’ll get there myself. You survived what should have been the end, so pick up where you left off and keep going. I love you, the world loves you, and somewhere out there, a force – called God, if you like – loves you too and sent you back on a mission. You are destined for great things with this great thing called life and free will to do with it what you wish, so make the most of each day.

That last sentence isn’t just for you though, it’s for everyone who’s reading this.

Oh, and Malala – if somehow, God, or the universe, or the force, could send you on a mission to end to all the conflicts in Israel, the Middle East and South Asia,  that would be nice too.

And if God could send you on Ellen along the way, that would be even better.