Over a year ago, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published an essay by me called “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” Since then I’ve been asked to write individual monthly essays on each of the 42 works mentioned. This one’s about Les Blancs, Lorraine Hansberry’s last play.
WHERE IT FITS IN THE OEUVRE
First produced in 1970, a little over five years after the author died of cancer at the age of 34, Les Blancs never achieved the acclaim of Hansberry’s massively successful Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, nor that of the Off-Broadway dramatic adaptation her widower Robert Nemiroff patched together from her notes and autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. But though it remained unfinished at the time of her death, she considered Les Blancs her most important work.
HOW TO TELL IT’S FANTASTIC
Les Blancs’ action takes place in an unnamed African country modeled on Ghana and Kenya, according to Hansberry’s biographers, and also somewhat on the Congo, according to me. (See, for instance, the reference in Act Two, Scene 2 to the Belgian King Leopold’s favorite method of mutilation, the cutting off of indigenes’ hands.) The “Kwi,” this country’s original inhabitants, are in the midst of being supplanted by English-speaking whites. The supplantation is carried out via multiple methods: a paternalistic Christian mission-cum-hospital, a white-run government supported by a white-run soldiery, and political interference with the threat of military intervention from the U.S. Like many SF and Fantasy authors before and after her, Hansberry is able to analyze real-life issues with lessened fear of triggering reprisals by situating them in a purely speculative location. Rather than invoking an alternate past as I do in Everfair or an extrapolated future as Nnedi Okorafor does in Who Fears Death, though, Hansberry creates a semi-imaginary present. (Now, of course, that present has passed.)
Also, she offers us two personifications of a spiritual force. This is not simply a case of imbuing her realistic human characters with archetypal qualities. In the prologue, and at the end of Act One, and again in the second half of Act Two, Scene 3, Hansberry renders the essence of African independence as a dancing woman bearing a spear. Because she’s a supernatural phenomenon this woman is visible only to the protagonist and to us, the audience. Later (the whole of Act Two, Scene 6), the author renders this spirit as male, a “poet-warrior” named Ngago who exhorts his people to take violent action. These extramundane scenes show that Hansberry valued the fantastic highly enough to explicitly depict it throughout the play.
WHERE IT CAME FROM
Hansberry’s friend and collaborator Nemiroff says that much of her inspiration for writing Les Blancs rose out of watching a production of Jean Genet’s Absurdist “clown show” Les Nègres. Reacting to the racism Genet both exhibited and lampooned and to the Frenchman’s ignorance of a continent often romanticized by Europeans, Hansberry began work soon after that evening on her oppositionally-titled play.
But Les Blancs’ inspiration was also in the time’s disturbed and smoky air. During the early 1960s, the years in which Hansberry hammered the play out, the flood of African anti-colonialism was in full spate. Alongside members of the U.S.’s civil rights movement marching for equality, African nations fought and burned for self-rule. Hansberry, politically aware as she was, paid attention to the parallels. She felt the ties spanning the Atlantic and linking together the destinies of kindred peoples. She knew these links were genetic, cultural, and spiritual—real on many levels. She conjured up her two embodiments of freedom’s essence because of that truth.
WHERE IT COULD HAVE GONE
In just the five years between Hansberry’s untimely death and the play’s first public appearance, the pan-African political situation she referenced shifted: battles and legislative drives were won and lost, additional assassinations committed. Things have changed even more radically since. A work in progress that traveled with Hansberry on trips to the hospital towards the end of her life, Les Blancs could well have continued being reshaped to reflect emerging reality. It could also, like China Miéville’s Iron Council, have employed the techniques of imaginative fiction to show the future’s ineffableness. If Hansberry had lived.
Here’s a brief synopsis of Les Blancs as we know it: In Act One, two men arrive at a Christian mission’s rural African hospital. They are a white U.S. journalist called Charlie (for most blacks that’s a racially charged name), and Tshembe, a black native who has returned from life abroad to attend his father’s funeral. The two men interact with each other and various others—Tshembe’s brothers, the hospital staff, the local military commander—against a backdrop of guerilla violence. Tshembe receives but rejects a mystical call to arms, refusing to revenge his older brother’s betrayal of the liberation movement. In Act Two the violence intensifies. Tshembe accepts the call he earlier rejected and kills his traitor brother. But other deaths occur as well, and the final scene ends on his cry of anguish. There is no third act.
How would a longer-lived Hansberry have resolved her hero’s dilemma?
Originally, Hansberry’s notes reveal, Tshembe was Candace, a woman. Answering the dancing female spirit’s call to arms, killing the brother—in fact, the action of the whole story would have unspooled differently with a woman as its protagonist. What if—maybe in response to feminism’s building second wave—Hansberry had returned to her first conception?
Until we figure out how to access alternate timelines we’ll never know.
WHERE I AM WITH IT NOW
I came to this play through the guidance of Andrea Hairston, a fabulous author of award-winning fantasy and science fiction novels who is also a theater professor at Smith College. She helped me see its fantastic elements by making me conscious of habitual prose consumers’ tendency to discount such things as mere matters of dramatic convention.
Because of this introduction I have the privilege of identifying with Hansberry’s relationship to Les Blancs. My debut novel Everfair also takes place in an imaginary African country—but its imaginariness is historical rather than the result of a geopolitical mash-up. I can visit Everfair’s physical locations, though I never have. In writing it I relied, as Hansberry did, on remote research. So I can easily picture her in the throes of authorship, fretting over her play’s details, implications, and vectors, the branching consequences of carefully thought out decisions on what to represent, and who, and how…just as I’ve done. Just as numerous other African-descended creators of speculative works have done. And I can picture her happy now to know that we return via her words to her unnamed chimerical land; I can envision her smiling her gorgeous smile on learning from our comments and discussions what we’ve discovered there.
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.