Saturday, April 25, 2020

52. LES BLANCS. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Earl Hyman, James Earl Jones, Harold Scott.
 "In Lieu of Reviews"


For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

Cameron Mitchell, James Earl Jones.
LES BLANCS [Drama/Africa/Politics/Race] A: Lorraine Hansberry; AD: Robert Nemiroff; D: John Berry; P: Konrad Matthaei; S: Peter Larkin; C: Jane Greenwood; L: Neil Peter Jampolis; T: Longacre Theatre; 11/15/70-12/19/70 (40)

Lorraine Hansberry, the first African-American female playwright to succeed on Broadway when her A Raisin in the Sun premiered in 1959, worked on this drama between 1961 and 1965, dying in the latter year aged only 34. The final text was adapted by her widowed husband, Robert Nemiroff, but several critics thought the play’s unfinished state remained very much in evidence. This may have seemed even more obvious when the play postponed its opening three times, ostensibly because of script problems.

Regardless, Les Blancs packed a still potent punch, as is clear from the dissension it provoked among, on the one hand, those who branded it a work of didactic and propagandistic anti-colonialism, and, on the other, those who felt it was a dynamic, savagely honest, and significant version of the contemporary African world.

Its plot concerns Tshembe Matoseh (James Earl Jones), a black African married to a white European, who returns from England on the occasion of his father’s funeral. He thereby finds himself swept up into local political problems that produce in him a shattering sense of conflicting loyalties to both the black and white worlds that form his background.

Clive Barnes was among those who scored the play for being politically superficial and having pasteboard characters. But Richard Watts thought it a work of “power,” Lee Silver considered it “most absorbing,” and Arthur Sainer believed it to be exciting and thought-provoking. Harold Clurman, rebuking those who felt it necessary to chastise him for favoring a piece of black, anti-white propaganda, said Les Blancs was an “intelligent, compassionate drama,” a “forceful and intelligent statement of the tragic impasse of white and black relations all over the world."

James Earl Jones gave a searing performance as Tshembe, Walter Kerr saying: “This may be the actor’s very best work, which is saying a great deal. Surely it is his subtlest.” Barnes supported this, describing how Jones captured the character’s “pride, his wariness, weariness, ironic detachment, his wit, his final inevitable involvement and ensuing grief. . . . [H]e lived the role, transcending the play.”

Lili Darvas.
The sizable company included several distinguished thespians, including Lili Darvas, Earle Hyman, Cameron Mitchell, and Harold Scott. Jones was given the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. Lili Darvas –who played Madame Neilsen, a missionary’s wife—was nominated for a Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Play, while Jane Greenwood was nominated for Best Costumes.  

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague
Black Picture Show
Black Sunlight
The Black Terror
Black Visions