Lorraine Hansberry’s third and final Broadway play, which is being presented online through July 9 in a dark, expressionistic production directed in 2016 by Yael Farber for the National Theatre, is set in an Africa struggling against British colonialism. But some of the issues the playwright explores make it feel especially timely: It argues for racial reckoning, questions the value of good intentions, and dramatizes the complex choices in a time of crisis.
The play revolves around Tshembe Matoseh (portrayed in the National Theatre production by Danny Saponi), living in England with a white English wife and a newborn child, who has returned for his father’s funeral in his (unnamed) African homeland, which is in the midst of great turmoil. Tshembe is confronted with the different forces in the country, each represented by a different character. There is, most artfully, a character called simply The Woman (Sheila Atim) who haunts Tshembe and the play, and perhaps suggests Africa before the invasion by colonial powers. There is Ntali (Sidney Cole) who surprises Tshembe by informing him that his father had been a commander in the Freedom of the Land Army, and urging Tshembe in effect to take his father’s place. Tshembe’s younger brother Eric (Tunji Kasim), who is half-white and drunk most of the time, wants to join them. Tshembe’s other brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle), has become a Catholic priest, and wants Eric to join him in the church, and Tshembe to be “practical” and stay uninvolved, because practical men “know there is only way to power here. …when the blood of this hour is past, when order and reason are restored to these hills, the West will compromise because they must.” Major George Rice (Clive Francis) represents the colonial authorities, alarmed by the rise of “terrorism,” and determined to crack down, and keep the white settlers safe.
The only “settlers” we meet, slyly, are the decent people who work at a missionary outpost staffed by hard-working doctors – idealistic/naive Dr Martha Gotterling (Anna Madeley) and cynical/truth-telling Dr Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) — led by a Protestant minister who has been in the country for some 40 years (who we never see) and is much revered in the West. (a la Albert Schweitzer)
The Reverend’s wife, Madame Neilsen (Siân Phillips) was Tshembe’s teacher but also, best friends of Tshembe’s mother, now long dead, and something close to a surrogate mother to him. She is old now, and has become almost blind — her condition an unmistakable metaphor.
There are surprises large and small in “Les Blancs.” I’ll only tell you a couple of the little ones. Ntali goes by Peter when he’s with the missionaries, and acts the obsequious servant. In what initially seems to be the main focus, a white American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) has arrived at the outpost to write a story about the great humanitarian minister.
Tshembe, who was once politically engaged as the right-hand man to a man named Kumalo who has been trying to negotiate peacefully with the colonial power, wants nothing more than just to go back to his sedate life in England. But the play has other plans for him…and for us. The confrontations with the Hamlet-like protagonist offer an opportunity for intelligent debate about morality and politics. Charlie especially gives Tshembe (and Hansberry) an opportunity to make some pointed observations about America.
What unfolds is not easy — the filmed presentation begins with a trigger warning:”This play is about imperialism, racism and colonialism and contains scenes of racially motivated violence that some may find distressing.” There are also no easy answers.
“Les Blancs” debuted at the Longacre, with James Earl Jones in the central role of Tshembe, in 1970, which was 11 years after the opening of Hansberry’s first play “A Raisin in the Sun” – and five years after her death, at the age of 34 from cancer. Hansberry had not finished the play; it was “adapted” by her widower Robert Nemiroff , and later “restored” by Nemiroff’s daughter by a second marriage, Joi Gresham, director of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust.
If Hansberry’s first play was met with great acclaim by critics and audiences alike — “It was as if the audience that night uniquely understood that they had not just seen a play but had attended a historical event,” Raisin’s producer recalled of its opening night, and the accolades continue six decades later — the response to “Les Blancs” has been more mixed and more muted.
But it too can be understood as a historical event, albeit in a different way. In the year in which Hansberry started writing “Les Blancs,” 1960, there were 17 African nations that gained their independence from colonial powers Britain, France and Belgium. A couple of leaders of those nations (and the nations that followed) had been students of Hansberry’s uncle, a Harvard-trained professor of African studies, which helps explain the playwright’s interest in African colonial struggles from an early age. She even studied Africa as a student of the great W.E.B. Du Bois (For more on her endlessly compelling biography, see my review of “Looking for Lorraine”)
Astute theatergoers will recall the character of Asagai, the African intellectual who was one of sister Beneatha’s suitors in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Asagai could arguably be seen as a first draft for (or at least first cousin of) Tshembe in “Les Blancs,” who is an educated African who has traveled the world, including the United States.
Hansberry entitled her play “Les Blancs” (The Whites) as a shrewdly shrouded criticism of Jean Genet’s “Les Nègres’(The Blacks) which she reportedly felt treated Africans like exotic Others.
What makes “Les Blancs” work in the National Theatre production is that nobody is the Other, even the scary Major, each character given their due, each performance worthy of Lorraine Hansberry’s writing.
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Adapted by Robert Nemiroff, restored text directed by Joi Gresham
Director: Yaël Farber
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin Music and Sound: Adam Cork Movement Director: Imogen Knight Fight Director: Kev McCurdy Music Director: Joyce Moholoagae Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg
Mrs Ryder: Amy Forrest
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