Reviewed by James Karas
Les Blancs, the 2016 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s last play by England’s National Theatre is being streamed for us on YouTube. It is a marvelous bonus for all to help us survive Covid-19.
Hansberry (1930-1965) left Les Blancs (The Whites) unfinished on her death and according to The National Theatre this is the final text adapted by her husband Robert Nemiroff. It is a searing indictment of imperialism, colonialism, arrogance, suppression and racism. It is a transcendent play that receives a powerful production and leaves one breathless at the conduct of “well-meaning” Europeans.
The play takes place in a Christian mission and hospital in Africa dedicated to serving the native population of an unnamed country. No one can doubt the decency, generosity and sacrifices of the people running the mission. Reverend Neilsen (we never see him) is described in saintly terms as the father of the community. Madame Neilsen, his elderly, blind wife (Sian Phillips) is revered for her services to these people. Dr. Gotterling (Anna Madeley) and Dr. Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) have devoted their lives to caring for these people.
No one can doubt their intentions or decency unless one looks more closely. Reverend Neilsen is there to take away their traditions and religious beliefs and replace them with Christian doctrine. They lose even their names. On what basis is that defensible? Is it not arrogance in the highest degree?
The doctors practice medicine in a hospital without any equipment or even electricity. Down the road there is a hospital for whites that is well equipped and has electricity. When the obvious racist arrives in the person of Major Rice (Clive Francis) dragging a “boy “with a rope around his neck, the decent people refuse to identify the victim. They surmise that the Major will torture the youth for information about terrorists and then shoot him. The major seems impatient and shoots the youth right away. The reaction of the decent people? Oh, well, there goes another one. I am paraphrasing but they do nothing about it.
Charles Morris (Elliot Cowan), an American journalist arrives at the mission to do a story about it and he finds that the Africans are rising, demanding their independence and the arrogance and paternalism of the missionaries is crumbling. The Africans start killing people but the whites cannot comprehend the message that they are conquerors or descendants from conquerors who are abusing these people, robbing them of their history and their souls and it is time for the oppressors to leave.
One of the natives, Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani), has been educated in Europe, married a white woman and achieved success away from Africa. He returns for his father’s funeral and finds his older brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) in clerical clothes ready to be ordained under the name Augusts Paul. He has become contemptuous of the ancient customs of his people. Colonialism triumphant. Tshembe stands against the rape of his continent and the attempt to make its history and traditions disappear after three centuries of occupation.
The play opens with a woman, The Woman (Sheila Atim), dressed in a loincloth with her chest tied who walks ominously around the stage. Women wearing African dresses arrive chanting. The woman and The Woman will appear many times like an ominous obbligato reminding us of the existence of the native culture that is being crushed by European paternalism.
The set by Soutra Gilmour consists of the skeleton of a house that revolves. The lighting by Tim Lutkin is dark and foreboding.
Yael Farber directs this extraordinary work superbly. She develops the tension between the ideal of peaceful negotiations and armed uprising, between the goodwill of the missionaries and the armed response of Major Rice who is prepared to kill the rebels, the horrendous differences between family members and builds up to a moving, astounding and riveting drama.
Les Blancs is streaming for free from July 2, until 9 July 2020. Go to https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/