Lorraine Hansberry was an intriguing writer; a young, gifted black woman (the song of the same name by Nina Simone was written about her). She was the first black playwright and the youngest American to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for A Raison in the Sun in 1959. She died four years later at the age of thirty-four having written several drafts and revisions of her ambitious work about the end of colonialism in Africa, Les Blancs. The play is relatively unknown in England and The National Theatre is presenting a bold and striking production of the piece.
Returning to his homeland from London due to the death of his father; Tshembe (Danny Sapani) leaves behind his European wife and his child and finds that Africa is in turmoil. Terrorists are in opposition to the colonial rule and the peace of his family is about to be shattered. Charles (Elliot Cowan) is an American journalism who has come to photograph the local health clinic and finds that he has entered a tinderbox where a group of white people anxiously anticipate bloodshed.
The play opens with an evocative sequence. Fragrant smoke fills the stage and the actors file in to music from South Africa’s soulful Ngqoko Cultural Group. The atmospheric opening sets the scene and it’s easy to feel that you’re in a different continent. The heat and dirt are tangible as The Woman played by the elegant and haunting Sheila Atim, stalks the stage with fearful poise. Soutra Gilmour’s clever set is a stripped down house that revolves in a cavernous, dusty space.
The clinic staff is confined to their compound; fretting, pacing and imbibing alcohol. There’s something Chekovian in their languid movements that are mixed with frantic worrying and fearful analysis of their situation as they passively await their fate. In the background their servants constantly sweep and clean in an exhausting ritual that doesn’t seem to have any impact on their environment. Added to this is the terrifying presence of the frustratingly arrogant Major Rice with his pistol.
Tshembe and his brothers Peter and Abioseh are faced with different dilemmas. Their story unfolds into something akin to a Greek tragedy as they agonise over their own roles in the fate of their country in turmoil.
The National Theatre has a long track record of staging hard hitting political pieces but recent efforts, whilst pertinent and interesting, have proved somewhat dry to watch. This play, whilst a valuable and fascinating study into some of the darker aspects of colonial history, threatened to not always be an entertaining three hours. Thankfully, this didn’t prove to be the case at all. The first act of Les Blancs is occasionally slow and difficult to watch but the play comes into its own in hard hitting and emotionally resonant second act that is compelling to view.
The acting is strong with standout performances from Danny Sapani, the fantastic Dame Sian Phillips, Gary Beadle and Eliot Cowan. It’s a hard-hitting play but worth watching. Unlike Madame Neilson who says: “In some ways, I am quite glad to be going blind. The less one sees of this world the better.” I’m glad to have witnessed this. We need to keep the horrors of history fresh in our minds. Thankfully this is so much more than a dry historical reaction but is an essentially human tale that remains fresh.