Les Blancs (The Whites) is African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s final, unfinished work, yet, it debuted in 1970 on Broadway – 5 years after her death.

Hansberry’s ex-husband (Jewish publisher, songwriter, and political activist Robert Nemiroff) fashioned the first version from the drafts she had been working on. It seems that, in the last year or so of her life, she was attempting to create a counter-work to ‘The Maids’ playwright Jean Genet’s 1958 absurdist play ‘Les Nègres, Clownerie’ (The Blacks: A Clown Show), which he wrote for a white audience, and was intended to expose racial prejudice and stereotypes whilst examining black identity…

For its debut presentation at The National Theatre, award-winning South African director Yaël Farber, dramatist Drew Lichtenberg, and director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, Joi Gresham consulted Hansberry’s drafts and notebooks, creating this powerfully stirring presentation.

Accompanied by simple instruments, a female Xhosa quartet sing harmonious umngqokolo over the opening scenes of toil, poverty and educational ignorance for the black community surrounding a long-standing Mission. Quite striking is ‘The Woman’ (Sheila Atim), an ever-silent character of tall, slender, sturdy build, who stalks the fictional African country and, occasionally, the main protagonist. She bears a burden – sometimes physically, sometimes simply within her bones.

Sheila Atim as ‘The Woman’ in Les Blancs at The National Theatre, 2016
Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Into this, American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) arrives with the intention of writing a glowing tribute to the Mission and the decades of work done there. He finds the founding Reverend Nielsen absent. But the Reverend’s wife Madame (Sian Phillips) and doctors Marta Gotterling (Anna Madeley) and Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) remain. Major George Rice (Clive Francis), leader of the regional British militia, is also a regular, unpleasant visitor. They speak of their good work in such deprived conditions and how happy they are in their tasks. Yet, their veranda is always swept clean and their decanters never run dry; they never speak to the black help, except to give a terse command, or to the locals, except in their benevolent patriarchal roles in medical treatment.

 

Meanwhile, in the village-proper, Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) has arrived a matter of hours too late to say goodbye to his dying father. He has been away for years, travelling the world, recently marrying a European woman who has just given him his first child, a son. He is greeted by his troubled younger half-brother Eric (Tunji Kasim), who has stayed in the village of their birth and eked out an uneasy existence. Later, they both greet older sibling Abioseh (Gary Beadle), who has also been away, travelling Africa and taking up the Catholic priesthood.

There is deep unrest amongst the people, and each sees Tshembe’s return as an opportunity to further their own cause. Abioseh wants him to join with the moderate Africans who see a future in the status quo; his Uncle Peter (Sidney Cole) and Ngaga (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva), a young lieutenant from the local rebellion, want him to step into his father’s shoes and lead them down their increasingly violent path. Morris wants him to broker a real peace and understanding between African and Colonial as the power of the Empire wanes. Tshembe’s intention is to pay his respects to his father and make an offer to take Eric with him on his return to his wife.

Danny Sapani as ‘Tshembe’ & Gary Beadle as ‘Abioseh’
in Les Blancs at The National Theatre, 2016

For the next 3½ hours (including an interval) the issue of colonial rule peaks and troughs, back and forth, the two sides only coming together on occasion, usually around Tshembe. The ‘settlers’ state their case passionately, based in the absolute belief of the inferiority and ignorance of the African peoples. Major Rice represents the racist ‘settlers’ and believes Africa is wasted on the Africans, dismissing and discounting centuries of arts and science. He fervently believes that Africa belongs to people like him; Marta represents the ‘hipster’ type racist who chooses to work in Africa, but maintains a position of privilege because of her self-belief in her benevolence. To her, Africans are wayward children who have, “…not yet earned the right to criticise”; Madame and Dr. Dekoven are the quiet, knowing ones who understand what is coming; Morris is the outsider who is destined to learn a brutal lesson in why they can’t just all get along.

The Africans do not state their case – they hardly need to, since it is there in the staging, the costume and the unspoken, hauntingly symbolic gait, stance and actions of The Woman. Instead, they argue the reasons why the time has come to rise up and take back what is theirs and why it is long overdue. They see the value in threatening what the whites hold dear – a lesson still relevant in world politics today.

Danny Sapani’s Tshembe is the standout performance here. He is the educated prodigal son who, despite his marriage choice, is proud of his African heritage and is initially torn between the injustice visited upon his people measured against that visited on the world’s poor and uneducated, including whites in their domestic slums, no better off than many Africans. He gives a towering performance of quiet menace, grief, and fury by turns and he is at times, simply breathtaking. The question of whether he will be swept up or simply manoeuvred into supporting one side or the other shapes the final act.

Gary Beadle infuses Abioseh with enough of an air of wisdom and brotherly love to hint that there may be a tragic reason behind the attitude he takes, quite beyond his taking up The Cloth. It is no small feat since this is not Abioseh’s story. He represents the Africans who have assimilated to some degree and enjoy some benefits under the status quo. Kasim’s delicate Eric is young Africa struggling for his identity and seeking a purpose, whilst trying to hide his shame.

Danny Sapani and Clive Francis in Les Blancs, playing at the National Theatre (Photo Johan Persson)

Nsengiyumva’s Ngaga does not have much to say in the first half of the play. But, when his hour comes, the power of his monologue is beautifully underscored by his physical adoption of aspects of the ‘other’ Africa – the roar of the lion, the prowl of the panther, the leap of the gazelle and the strike of the snake. His performance will captivate you as he makes his mark on stage.

To those who feel this production is a little heavy on symbolism whilst still being wordy, I say that in the on-going struggles of a people displaced from their own history, it couldn’t be any other way. This is a 50-year-old play which hasn’t aged! To those who feel the lack of a strong female protagonist or even a female character with dialogue of any kind, I say consider it an artistic choice for the symbolistic power of its absence, balanced by the Xhosa quartet and the constant presence of The Woman.

The journey toward late 20th century Africa fashioned by Farber, her incredible cast, the impossibly evocative additional music of Adam Cork and Soutra Gilmour’s (also of The Maids) skeletal shack/mission set design is almost an immersive experience, such that this is a production not only worth seeing but worth revisiting. The Matoseh Brothers and young Ngaga have The potential to earn their place as new, dramatic African archetypes.

Les Blancs earned a standing ovation on Press Night, which, apparently, is a highly unusual occurrence. We will simply declare it an absolute must-see.


Les Blancs closes June 2nd, 2016.

For tickets, visit: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/les-blancs