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A ‘Hamlet’ Born of Racial Strife

March 5, 1998

ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) _ When Tim Bond came to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as the new associate artistic director, he was yearning to put on Lorraine Hansberry’s relatively unknown play, ``Les Blancs.″

``It felt like it was meant to be,″ said Bond, who has made a life’s study of the late playwright best known for ``A Raisin in the Sun.″

``She is my Shakespeare,″ he said.

From the indecisive tribal prince to the tragic and bloody climax, ``Les Blancs″ (``The Whites″) is a ``Hamlet″ born out of America’s racial strife of the 1960s and set in a timeless colonial Africa, examining questions of freedom, responsibility and who we are.

``Les Blancs″ is one of four plays to run as the festival, the nation’s oldest and largest regional theater, begins its 63rd year. The others are Shakespeare’s ``A Midsummer Night’s Dream,″ Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s ``The School for Scandal″ and ``Vilna’s Got a Golem,″ by Ernest Joselovitz.

``One of the missions of the festival is to bring to light classics that may have slipped into obscurity,″ said Bond, who directs ``Les Blancs.″

``It seemed a great candidate for that,″ he said of the play.

The story is set at a mission hospital at a village in an unnamed country in central Africa sometime in the colonial period.

Tshembe Matoseh has been living in London, where he has a white wife and a son after giving up a position as a top aide to nationalist leader Amos Kumalo.

He returns home for the funeral of his father, the village leader, to find that his younger half-white brother, Eric, has become the drunken cross-dressing plaything of a mission doctor. His older brother, Abioseh, has become a Catholic priest loyal to the colonial government.

A revolution is growing, and Tshembe must choose between leading his people in their bloody fight for freedom, or returning to the wife and son he has left behind in a London flat.

Hansberry started working on the play in 1960, during the midst of the civil rights movement in America. It was among several unfinished plays when she died of cancer in January 1965.

``She took it with her everywhere in the last year and a half of her life,″ said Lue Morgan Douthit, who as dramaturge for the play, helps the director and actors share the playwright’s vision. ``I find it incredibly prescient that 30 years later it is still relevant.″

While ``Raisin in the Sun″ was based on Hansberry’s life growing up in Chicago, ``Les Blancs″ is her statement that man’s inhumanity to man is universal, Douthit said.

``I think she was the greatest American playwright for that generation, because of her wide arms and interest in being inclusive, not exclusive,″ Douthit said.

Hansberry’s husband, Robert Nimeroff, wrote that the title of the play was a reaction to French playwright Jean Genet’s ``Les Negres.″

``Genet was arguing that it doesn’t matter who is in power, it is still corrupt,″ Douthit said. ``She felt it was much more complicated.″

Because the play was not finished, there are a variety of versions available _ much like Shakespeare’s work.

This production was originally based on the 1988 Arena Stage version, which opens with Tshembe entering his family hut and finding Eric. But after a run-through with the cast, Bond and Douthit decided to return to the original 1970 Sam French production, which opens with American newspaperman Charlie Morris entering the mission hospital.

``What’s interesting is to hear about (Tshembe) and then see him,″ Douthit said. ``Hamlet’s not in the first scene, either.″

Costume designer Helen Qizhi Huang looked to the cultures of Congo, Zaire and Kenya for her inspirations. She visited the Smithsonian Institution and street vendors in her home town of Washington, D.C., and poured over books.

``I need to understand the culture,″ she said of the research that supports her designs. ``It’s like a flavor from this place.″

Unable to buy authentic central African fabrics, she relied on the costume shop to dye, paint and batik the materials used to create a melting pot of regional styles.

For Bond, directing ``Les Blancs″ is another step in his exploration of Hansberry’s work. He directed ``Raisin in the Sun″ and ``To Be Young, Gifted and Black″ at the Group Theatre in Seattle.

Bond sees the three brothers as all products of two cultures, facing a dilemma that some Americans face when exploring their African roots and learning to live in the European culture of the United States.

``Lorraine was very much struggling with that as she saw the racial strife of the ’60s coming upon the nation,″ said Bond.

``Her hope was that we could eventually cross these false boundaries of race, nationality, religion and gender, and we might discover respecting and sharing each others’ cultural treasures will enrich our human potential.″

Derrick Lee Weeden, who plays Tshembe, grew up in a multicultural world, himself. His father was an Army military police officer for 24 years. His mother was Costa Rican. He grew up on Army posts in Panama, Germany and the United States.

Though he has never played Hamlet, Weeden has played primarily Shakespearean roles in his 12 years in the theater and sees much of the Danish prince in Tshembe: ``The melancholy of the character, the inability to act, the brilliant verbal skills and his ability to reason.

``Tshembe sees the outcome of revolution,″ Weeden said. ``It saddens him and frightens him. He sees it is much easier to go back to London and not care and have his happy little life in front of the television.

``Something Lorraine Hansberry believes in is the ability of human beings to lift ourselves up for greater things. That’s what makes Tshembe a hero.″

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