Les Blancs: Lorraine Hansberry at the National Theatre

Les Blancs/ The Whites, by Lorraine Hansberry
Final text adapted by Robert Nemiroff
Directed by Yaël Farber
National Theatre, opened 30 March, 2016

This was amazingly raw and powerful as a production. At some point in life I made a shift from someone who never cried ever to someone who cries all the damn time, still, the ending of this wrung more tears from me than any other play I have seen I think. The audience applauded and stood and applauded some more and I sat there and cried.

Les Blancs, National Theatre

I don’t know if it’s possible to hate colonialism more than I already did, but this rounded it out a little, gave it a little more depth.

There was much to love in here, Hansberry herself thought it the most powerful of her plays. It demolishes liberal white hopes and expectations that if the past might just be erased and started all over again, people can just be friends. The violence can just stop. Things can just carry on as they are and people content themselves with gradual improvements achieved through democratic forms. Through responses to the character of the American journalist it exposes how all of these ideas break down in the face of a violent and murderous reality — and I love that people get to tell him what they think of him. Refuse his questions, his attempts to create an immediate intimacy, his mixture of motives that he thinks of as well-meaning.

One of my favourite moments was his explanation of his quest, the time he and his friends from Twin Forks Junction Nebraska had gone to see Black people for the first time, a troop of soldiers. His anger and despair that though he had gone to see them, none of them had returned his gaze, acknowledged him, seen him. The whole of his life an effort to be seen by the other.

Tshembe makes the journalist call him Mr Makoseh. His own bitterness in the futility of struggle, attempted escape to London and a European wife and a child only to be dragged back through the death of his father into the middle of the rebellion. His confrontation with his friends, his half-brother, his full brother now become a priest and betrayer.

The white doctor who knows that everything he has done has been in service to colonialism and genocide. So he drinks.

The Major George Rice, who tortures and kills to protect white women and children, and the land he considers his home. The land he loves, and sees as beautiful. The land he and most other white settlers own and do not see as stolen. Their utter inability to see any validity in the contestation of their rights, any humanity in those they oppress.

The old woman who knew her missionary husband had many good qualities, but his deep racism caused the death of her best friend, raped by a white man and bearing what the man of god considered an abomination.

The troubled self-medicating son who is tortured by his identity.

They are all so powerful. As was the staging, the simple wood construction of the mission and the dust upon the floor.

Les Blancs Book 1I need to read it, because while absolutely caught up in the thing while watching it, thinking about it after I remembered the few twinges I had, the questions.

So many of the insights are spoken by whites, I imagine this was purposeful, to better allow white audiences to actually hear them, process them. I think this is carefully crafted to provoke an ongoing internal critique of people’s own racism with all of its assumptions as well as an external discussion of colonialism, and I appreciated that craft.

Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre. Directed by Yael Farber. (Opening 30-03-16) ©Tristram Kenton 03/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
Sheila Atim (Woman) in Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry @ Olivier, National Theatre.
©Tristram Kenton 03/16
tristram@tristramkenton.com

Yet it is a slightly disturbing fact that Black women have no real voice in the production. They are symbolized by the servant constantly carrying and endlessly sweeping — she never really comes alive to us though her husband finally does. So there is the servants and a gaunt figure who presides over scene after scene. From our position far far away in the back I imagined her as skeletal, a product of hunger and never-ending labour. I see pictures of her as she would have been seen from the expensive seats and she is more a model. She is supposed to represent Africa, to haunt Tshembe. But she does not speak.

Also interesting, as we talked about it later, was the centering of the mission within the ring of stones and the darkness surrounding it — this is where the Africans live, where they emerge from and go back to. They are mostly impassive, unreadable — all the characteristics of the orientalized figure. They too rarely speak. It was hard to tell if this was more pronounced because of how it had been staged and directed, or the way it was written.

So there seemed much also problematic and with clear limitations, but it remains a powerful view into the lived experience of struggle over colonial Africa.

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