By J. Kates
These days, I’m not in a mood to be comforted in the theater by either toasting or roasting chestnuts.
Abioseh: Do you believe any of it?
Tshembe: Of course I don’t believe it.
Abioseh: Then why?
Tshembe: We are our father’s sons. Our people expect it.
The Arts Fuse asked me if I wanted to review the Peterborough Players’s downtown production of Our Town (through August 15), which represents the company’s comeback after the recent history of 2020 and 2021.
Thornton Wilder’s play is, however you slice it, comfort food. It was retrospective when it was written, looking back to an idealized past. Putting it on these days is nostalgia piled on nostalgia, a ritual more like attending church than attending theater.
But these days, I’m not in a mood to be comforted in the theater by either toasting or roasting chestnuts. Much as I love the Peterborough Players, and I do, the world will not be enlightened by one more traditional production of Our Town, no matter how well done — and I’m sure it is well done.
I need to be made uncomfortable.
And so, in place of writing about Our Town once again, for now I want to draw your attention to a play I wish the Peterborough Players would see fit to put on, Les Blancs, the last piece written by Lorraine Hansberry, produced only after the early death of that brilliant young Black playwright of Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.
Hansberry was partly explicitly answering Jean Genêt’s Les Nègres when she wrote Les Blancs, but I can’t help thinking she was conscious of Our Town, too, as every American playwright has had to be since 1938. The central character of Les Blancs, the European-educated Tshembe (originally played on Broadway by James Earl Jones), from time to time echoes Wilder’s cosmic sentiments: “Enough time will pass and it will be over for me on this little planet! And so I’d better do the things I mean to do…. This particular atom has discovered himself…. The heavens, as you taught me, are broad and can afford a galaxy.” We also have the evidence of an unproduced television play by Hansberry, The Drinking Gourd, which employs a narrative device clearly derived from Our Town’s Stage Manager.
But Tshembe is no Emily Webb. In the last scene, he shoots his older brother as his village goes down in rebellion and retribution.
As mythical and as artificially contrived as Grover’s Corners, this African village has a cartoonish simplicity, one that feels closer to Black Panther than to Things Fall Apart. It is no less starkly representative of the clash of cultures it encloses when a benevolent white mission hospital falls victim to its own complacency as much as to larger politics.
Les Blancs played in New York briefly in 1970 to consternation and mixed reviews. It was judged polemical and “flawed.” The New York Times critic Clayton Riley called it “moving … in such a way as to polarize an opening night audience into separate camps … into sectors inhabited on the one hand by those who recognize clearly that a struggle exists in the world today … [and] those who still accept as real the soothing mythology that oppression can be dealt with reasonably.”
How far away are we really from “our” town? Certainly it is a legitimate function of the theater to shield us for a couple of hours from all this discomfort. But theater has another function — to dramatize and confront our discomforts.
A Black Our Town would look more like Elaine, AK, the scene of a 1919 massacre, than like Peterborough, NH. Or it might look, with all its ragged edges, like Les Blancs. The script’s “flaws” may not be rooted in Hansberry’s dramaturgy but in the dramatic imperfections of our own history, which do not need to be exaggerated to be accurately represented.
Although Les Blancs is set in Africa, “What we know — is what we accept. It is like that everywhere!” And, in the play, it is a white man who says, “The sun really is starting to rise in the world, so we might as well stop pretending it is the middle of the night. They are quite prepared to die to be allowed to bring [independence]. It is we who are not prepared. To allow it or to die.”
You get a good rest, too. Good night.
Editor’s Note: Stage critics must demand that theater companies do more than placate audiences. Reviewers and theatergoers need not quietly accept a return to normality, which inevitably means superficiality. Given the pressures on the future of democracy, the destruction of the world’s climate, and the rise of racial tensions, the same old same old simply won’t do. Is this really the time, as Barrington Stage’s marketing would have it, that we want to laugh? Some might, but theater has a higher calling than reassuring the complacent during times of crisis. No — it is time for stage work that is original, stimulating, provocative, and challenging. There will be more “reviews” like this — and columns like mine. Those who care about the future of the American stage — as art, not Disney-fied commerce — must ask for plays that matter because they discomfort, such as Hansberry’s Les Blancs and Edward Bond’s Lear. — Bill Marx
J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.