Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry at the National Theatre

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Lorraine Hansberry was not just the first African American, but also one of the first women to be produced on Broadway with her play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Now over 55 years after she started writing her last play, before her untimely death from cancer, ‘Les Blancs’ has been put on by the National.

Set in an unnamed colony in Africa, we are confronted with the endgame of imperialism and colonialism. The action is set round a tribal hut and a mission hospital.The protagonist of the play, an expatriate, Tshembe Matoseh, has returned to his home town to see his dying father. It is his plight which is an ongoing subject of exploration, in this and other works by Hansberry. His is a double consciousness. He is a man fighting with two competing selves. He has been living in London, having travelled widely abroad, and has a white wife and a son. Part of him appears to want to assimilate into white society, waiving responsibility towards the issues implicit in this decision. The other part struggles with the magnitude of the issues he confronts when returning to his native country. Here he finds that one of his brothers has assimilated into white society but this only leads to humiliation. His compliance has a heavy cost. Lorraine’s focus on divided identities is a feature of her writing and is evident in all three brothers. Overall, we witness the injustice of white rule in Africa with African demands for independence perpetually ignored until it’s too late.

As ever, the National have put on a tremendously staged production. There are no half measures. Light beams across the stage like the sun, creating the perfect colourscape for this old mission hospital. The action is set on the revolve and creates a dynamic platform for people to move around the stage in procession or otherwise, marking passages of time. Three ‘matriarchs and singers’ create the soundscape and atmosphere specifically of the Ngqoko culture, sitting with Lorraine’s goal to create theatre devoted to the culture of African peoples. The acting was extremely good, particularly from Danny Sapani as the lead. The most memorable of all the performances however was from Sheila Atim as ‘The Woman’. A striking physical presence, her slow deliberate walks across the stage towards Tshembe at crisis points in the narrative were extraordinary.

Director, Yaël Farber, whose Mies Julie we were very lucky to see at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, has added her own lens to the adaptation of this work, perfectly highlighting the key points of the story whilst creating a work that is powerful in style and in content. However something about the pace of the play in the second half seemed to militate against the clearly developing crisis in the drama. The delivery of a political invective by a young rebel towards the end of the play took it into the arena of protest another change to the pace. It also felt that some of the relationships were not developed fully. These issues might have been sorted out had the playwright completed her work. This play was unfinished by Lorraine and only completed by her ex-husband, but life-time collaborator, Robert Nemiroff. In a sense, the unfinished nature is represented in the play by the very nature of political power itself: it can always be challenged.

Highlight of the play – The Woman – the first sign of movement in the play, her legs slowly pacing on from the back of the stage.

WIGS 4/5

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