Reviewed by Terry Morgan
Rogue Machine in the Met Theatre
Through July 3rd
It’s kind of amazing that a major play by Lorraine Hansberry is just having its Los Angeles premiere now. Perhaps the tide of criticism that caused the play to close after one month on Broadway in 1970 tainted its reputation in some way, or its need for a 24-member cast scared producers off. Thankfully, Rogue Machine decided to rectify this situation, and its current production is a smart, exciting theatrical event.
In 1970s Africa, Tshembe (Desean Kevin Terry) has returned home to his tribal village to attend the funeral of his father. He’s spent years abroad, finally settling down in Britain with a white wife and a child. He reunites with his brother Abioseh (Matt Orduña), who’s become a Catholic priest, and his half-brother Eric (Aric Floyd), who is no longer the innocent boy Tshembe used to know. He visits the mission he attended as a youth where he reunites with the kindly Madame Neilsen (Anne Gee Byrd) and meets the visiting American journalist, Charlie Morris (Jason McBeth). Immediately he remembers why he left his home, as the conflict between white settlers and black natives has come to a boil and both sides want him to be a leader and/or a spokesperson for their views.
Terry excels in a tricky, talky role: his Tshembe is clearly both the smartest person in the play and the most tragic, because he is resisting what he knows is his destiny. Orduña is strong as the devout Abioseh, trying to save the world in his own way, and Floyd does good work as Eric, a youth who aspires to be more than a pawn of his brothers. Byrd is terrific as the wise, warm Madame Neilsen, but McBeth struggles a bit with Morris, who’s written as one-note obnoxious.
Bill Brochtrup is excellent as the misguided Major Rice, and particularly fine in a scene where he lays out the settler mentality. As Dr. Gotterling, Fiona Hardingham skillfully represents the views of most of the white settlers when she bitterly complains that the natives haven’t yet earned the right to criticize. Joel Swetow is great as the disenchanted Dr. DeKoven, particularly in a startling speech where he explains how the supposedly altruistic mission in fact reinforces colonialism and genocide.
Director Gregg T. Daniel’s staging is vivid and lively, with such dramatic theatrical tableaux as the opening sequence in which the white and black characters square off into factions, or another one in which African revolutionaries with rifles spread out throughout the theatre. Stephanie Kerley’s Schwartz’s wooden construct of a set is imposing and impressive. Hansberry’s play may be a trifle didactic, with characters who exist simply to add their voice to a complicated debate, but the arguments are fascinating; even the more villainous characters have understandable motives. Hansberry’s most controversial argument, that sometimes violence is necessary — a dispute between Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X that was contemporary when she wrote the play — is a conundrum that hasn’t been solved today. As one of her characters puts it, “Take away the violence, and who will hear the man of peace?”
Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles; Sat. & Mon. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. through July 3. www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.