National Theatre at home: a comment on Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘Les Blancs’

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This week’s offering by the ‘National Theatre at Home’ campaign is Yaël Farber’s 2016 adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s final play, Les Blancs. This lesser known play of Hansberry documents the return of Tshembe Matoseh to his African home country on the brink of civil war after several years of travelling and living in Europe and America. 

Originally premiering on Broadway in the winter of 1970, themes common to art such as home, identity and honour are given new meaning to a Western audience, since they work in tandem with tropes of revolution and pan-Africanism. It is significant that this play is set in Africa, because it is a place often unexplored in mainstream theatre. This makes for insightful and educative watching, since voice is given to individuals and stories that are regularly overlooked.  

The quest for freedom in both the colonies and the diaspora are similar roads to tread

Les Blancs becomes the junction where European colonialism and the oppression of African Americans seem to meet. Hansberry pertinently parallels Africans throwing off the European imperial yoke with black radicalism in the 1960s. This happens most resoundingly when Peter borrows the voice of Malcolm X, declaring at the end of Act 1 that he is determined to overturn European colonialism ‘by whatever means necessary’. Tschembe incidentally often embodies Martin Luther King. 

These two histories of black oppression, one in the foreground, the other in the back, lend momentum to one another, making the viewer, even via YouTube, ever more aware of the suffering black people have faced, and continue to face, at the hands of imperial and systemic racism. Hansberry highlights that the quest for freedom in both the colonies and the diaspora are similar roads to tread. 

Nevertheless, such fantastic writing demands a stellar group of actors and production team to give the powerful text meaning. This adpatation does not disappoint in this regard. 

Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh is brilliant. He masters the confliction his character suffers, delivering his most pivotal moments with a raw power and crippling anguish that makes an audience member fear and sympathise with him at the same time. Sapani fashions Tschembe into the character of experience, battling with too many memories of global injustice to sit on either side of the fence but all the same pained to see the white man decimate African culture and integrity.  

The casting of Elliot Cowan as the white American journalist Charlie Morris complements Sapani appropriately. Cowan performs with a definite passion and appears grounded in his support for black liberation; it comes across clearly that he believes he understands, assuming the role of mediator amid the anger felt on opposing sides. However, he naturally becomes the embodiment of white misunderstanding. As noble as his actions are, he can never fully understand the black story since he fails to recognise his own internalised superiority complex, a nuance that Cowan successfully conveys. 

The use of the voice and song in this production is also compelling

A recurring trope throughout the play, the anonymous female character, who is argued to represent the spirit of African revolution, never speaks, but shadows the characters ominously. She seems to be the thread that holds the splintering narrative together. Sheila Atim portrays her perfectly, her sometimes crippled, sometimes proud, upright poise and vacant expression as powerful as any line uttered by the other characters.  

In contrast, the use of the voice and song in this production is also compelling. The choice to celebrate indigenous African culture by including a troupe of matriarchs delivering umngqokolo, Xhosa overtone singing, creates a dynamic texture within and around most scenes, which complements the action and heightens the drama appropriately.  

Les Blancs views racism through a lens that is starkly different but at the same time similar to that used in Hansberry’s more famous play A Raisin in the Sun. She presents the African struggle for recognition in the colonies and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s as contrasting in terms of aesthetics and immediate goals – segregation and imperial oppression appear different on the surface. 

The specifics of situation may differ today, but archetypes maintain steadfast.

However, Hansberry erases the façade with these two plays; we see that the roots of suffering and the motivation behind change remain the same. With this, Hansberry successfully finds an essence that unifies people of African descent through drama, an essence that transcends geography and the nation state, making her a critical figure in the development of modern theatre.  

‘Young, Gifted and Black’, the genius of Hansberry created characters that engage in conversations that scarily echo the conversations we are unfortunately still having today. The specifics of situation may differ today, but archetypes maintain steadfast. Major Rice explains that “this colony has always depended on the sacredness of a white life”, which in some respects continues to ring true today across the world. The revolving stage used in Farber’s adaptation is an apt visual manifestation of this seemingly endless problem: when will this cycle of suffering end? 

Yaël Farber’s 2016 adaptation of Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry is being streamed on YouTube on the National Theatre channel until 7pm BST on Thursday 9th July 2020. 

Image: bswise on Flickr

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