NT at Home presents Lorraine Hansberry’s epic Les Blancs

United KingdomUnited Kingdom National Theatre at Home – Robert Nemiroff’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs: filmed on stage at the National Theatre in 2016 and viewed on 9.7.2020. (RP)

Danny Sapani (Tshembe Matoseh) in Les Blancs © Johan Persson

Director – Yaël Farber
Sets – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting – Tim Lutkin
Music and Sound – Adam Cork
Movement director – Imogen Knight
Fight director – Kev McCurdy
Music director – Joyce Moholoagae
Dramaturg – Drew Lichtenberg

The Woman – Sheila Atim
Abioseh Matoseh – Gary Beadle
Peter – Sidney Cole
Charlie Morris – Elliot Cowan
Dr Willy Dekoven – James Fleet
Major George Rice – Clive Francis
Eric – Tunji Kasim
Dr Martha Gotterling – Anna Madeley
Ngago – Roger Jean Nsengiyumva
Madame Neilsen -Siân Phillips
Tshembe Matoseh – Danny Sapani
Boy – Xhanti Mbonzongwana
Ensemble – Anna-Maria Nabirye, Daniel Francis-Swaby, Mark Theodore
Matriarchs & Singers (Ngqoko Cultural Group) -Nofenishala Mvotyo, Nogcinile Yekani Nomaqobiso, Mpahleni (Madosini) Latozi

If you are an American and know nothing about Les Blancs, it might be advisable to remain in that state of blissful ignorance for as long as possible when viewing it. That way, you have the smug satisfaction of watching the play at a safe distance, with the comfort that this is an African story in which Europeans bear the White Man’s Burden. If you take a pause to find out a bit about it midway through the play, as I did, the smugness evaporates. It is the work of the American writer Lorraine Hansberry, who in 1959 was the first African American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, A Raisin in the Sun.

It’s not as if I, or most theater goers, would ever have had the chance to see Les Blancs. It was left unfinished when Hansberry died of pancreatic cancer in 1965 at the age of 34. Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s ex-husband, compiled a version from incomplete drafts, which was staged in New York in 1970. For the National Theatre’s 2016 revival, the first since the original production, a revised version of the play was created by director Yaël Farber, dramaturg Drew Lichtenburg and Nemiroff’s stepdaughter, Joi Gresham, director and trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust.

Charlie Morris, a naïve and idealistic American journalist, arrives in an unnamed African country that is teetering on the edge of violent insurrection. His arrival coincides with the return of Tshembe Matoseh, a native of the village who now lives in Europe with his white wife and their child, to see his dying father. He is too late, but his dreams are subsumed by the tumult.

All the white inhabitants of this world urge Morris to tell their story as it really was, not as he wishes it to be. Tshembe, however, mocks him with taunts that Morris will be compelled to write, but implies that it will be to soothe the American’s conscience, not to help the Africans.

The genius of Hansberry’s plot, undoubtedly enhanced by later efforts, is not to paint in black and white. There are no heroes in this story, only conflicted individuals fighting for the Africa which they believe is rightly theirs. As Major George Rice bluntly sums it up, the natives made nothing of this country for centuries, but we did and it’s my home. He apologizes to Morris for not being able to invite him over to his farm to meet his family and stay for dinner, but the current difficulties prevent it. That’s minutes after he shoots Peter in cold blood in front of Morris and the others. Peter’s crime was being a part of the insurgency or, in other words, forgetting his place in the overall scheme of things.

It is also a tale of three brothers: Tshembe, who has escaped to Europe, Abioseh who has become a Roman Catholic priest and Eric, the youngest, who has no last name and is light-skinned. Eric has been groomed by the rebels and joins their forces, although Tshembe’s original wish was that Eric return with him to Europe. Abioseh preaches accommodation with the European settlers: the turn-the-other-cheek approach which keeps Black Africans in their place. For this he must die, as brother kills brother.

The term institutional racism was first coined in 1967 by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. If Hansberry didn’t know the words, she had fully internalized the concept. The European colonial power structure has one purpose – to keep the Negro as a functional economic tool. Education is to be doled out carefully: just enough to permit men to operate machinery. Missionaries arrive with crates of hymnals to superimpose their culture on that of the natives. Even the doctors and nurses are engaged in the fine art of subjugation.

Siân Phillips gives an extraordinary performance as Madame Neilsen, the grieving widow of a missionary who believed in strict separation of the races. Miscegenation to him was a crime against god and nature. He would have let Eric, as well as his mother, die. The old woman knows the town’s secrets, imparts them to Morris and then wishes to sit beside the coffin of her husband. She perishes in the flames as her home is burnt in the melee. Phillips captured the wistfulness, worldliness and wisdom of Madame Neilsen, telling the young American that he was fortunate, as few actually witness the end of an epoch.

Other standout performances included Clive Francis as Major George Rice, James Fleet’s disillusioned and defeated Dr Willy Dekoven and Elliot Cowan’s wide-eyed Charlie Morris. Above them all towered Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh and Sidney Cole as Peter.

Hansberry considered Les Blancs to be her most important play. It is the only one that takes place in Africa, and it uses both dance and music as signifiers of black and African cultures, a concept called the Black Aesthetic. It is every bit as beautiful, evocative and epic as Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. All three works were written by Western women writers. Of the three, only Hansberry never stepped foot in Africa, and only Les Blancs could have been penned this very second.

Rick Perdian

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