Shown as part of the National Theatre At Home initiative, against the haunting backdrop of 2020’s bubbling racial and political tensions, there is no doubt that Les Blancs is the most timeless masterpiece streamed by National Theatre- full of passion, drama and history.
Thanks to Lorraine Hansberry’s ex-husband, Les Blancs was complied, edited and published as a posthumous work, four years after Hansberry’s death. This once-unknown masterpiece of the American stage presents its audience with an intensely theatrical search for the soul of post-colonial Africa.
Hansberry drafted her final, and arguably most important, work after watching Jean Genet’s Les Negres, in an attempt to write a more believable and accurate account of African colonialism, as well as the important issues of identity, politics and power that are tied to it.
The play revolves around the conflict and issues during Ztembe’s (a fictional African country) struggle for independence. Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) is a white, American journalist who arrives at a rural mission in order to report on Ztembe’s quest for freedom. He hopes to interview Tshembe (Danny Sapani), who has returned to England for the funeral of his father.
Yael Farber’s production of Les Blancs is that of a genius. Under his direction, we see the play moving away from naturalism and realism, into the realm of expressionism as it shifts into some sort of ghost story.
The production is submerged in Tim Lutkin’s obscure lighting; a skeletal outline of the mission revolving on a carousel, perhaps indicating the cyclical nature of colonialism and racism.
In contrast to other plays that discuss colonialism, Les Blancs sees white characters and themes as the “other” and as the “foreign”, and addresses the notion that revolution is no more violent than the regime that provokes it.
“Les Blancs views racism through a lens that is starkly different but at the same time similar to that used in Hansberry’s more famous play A Raisin in the Sun. She presents the African struggle for recognition in the colonies and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s as contrasting in terms of aesthetics and immediate goals – segregation and imperial oppression appear different on the surface.”Harrison Newsham, for Palatinate.
Les Blancs maintains relevance and poignancy in 2020. Amidst the current Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, the show’s key themes of anguish, power and indentity resonate deeply with the audience watching today.
Les Blancs may have been an unfinished, lesser-known piece of work by Lorraine Hansberry, but it is certainly a powerful one.
Words by Zesha Saleem.