When the cast of Les Blancs took their curtain call, I was enthusiastic in my applause for this is a terrific and powerful production that, through the story of a fictional African state on the brink of revolution, examines the role and necessity of violence in struggles for freedom and rights.
Only as I headed home, a few niggles I had with the show came back to me, temporarily forgotten in the ovation at the end. And they’ve been hard to shake.
Les Blancs was Lorraine Hansberry’s last play. (In fact, it was unfinished at the time of her death in 1965.) It follows Tshembe (Danny Sapani), the second son of an influential man in this unspecified African country. He has been abroad for many years in Europe, but returns home, on news of his father’s death, to find the country of his birth on the verge of revolution.
Tshembe has moved on. He’s now a married man (to a white woman back in Europe) and has a son. He doesn’t want to get involved with the revolution but the injustices are too terrible to ignore and slowly, surely, he is drawn deeper into the chaos sweeping his country.
The plot centres on his family’s long-standing relationships with a local Mission, where the tension between the ruling white colonialists and the ruled African people is put under the microscope. And where the motives of those on both sides to find peaceful resolution are challenged.
There are some terrific exchanges between the characters, with the dialogue shaming not just the overtly hostile racism of some, but also the excruciatingly condescending arguments of those whites who think they have sympathy, but cannot support the violence. This is Lorraine Hansberry really giving voice to the black man – and it is glorious. And her spearing of those black men who try to ingratiate themselves into the colonialists’ power structures is piercing.
There’s much to admire in this production, too. Danny Sapani is terrific, a powerhouse of a performance full of passion and fury. Glorious. And Yael Farber’s direction is evocative – full of iconic imagery, and where the heat of the African sun is practically palpable with each heavy step taken by the characters, and with every grain of sand that seems to be being perpetually swept from the veranda of the Mission.
But this show isn’t without its problems.
Black men are front and centre here, yet not one black woman utters a word in this play. That’s just so strange, even more so given Lorraine’s strong personal stance on women’s rights. Why no speaking part for a black woman? There are plenty of black women on stage but they remain mute.
And the way these women are depicted… I don’t know. The principal African female is The Woman, a thin, long-limbed woman who stalks the stage as some sort of Mother Africa figure. But she is barely clothed, with only strips of flesh-coloured material covering her breasts and bottom. And her burden is to drag around a huge cauldron as a segue between scenes… I just felt we were in the realms of an uncomfortable and unhelpful stereotype of an African woman.
And given that this is a play that brings a voice to the black man, there’s something quite jarring about the wisest character being the elderly white woman who, in all her years at the Mission, has seen it all. She is the sage in this story. So we sort of go full circle with the white person coming out on top. Which, surely, is not the point of this play? Or maybe it is – to a point. Maybe Lorraine is telling us that the sides in this war are not clear cut; that there are heroes and villains on both sides of the racial divide.
But then there is the violence.
We see a white man kill a black man, and we see a black man kill another black man. But we never see a black man kill a white man. Why not? Why do we never see the oppressed finally strike their literal blow? It is inferred but never explicit.
Perhaps this could be because this was a play of its time. This was written in the 1960s with an American audience in mind. Maybe Lorraine just thought a black man murdering his oppressor on stage would be a step too far for her audience at that time.
Understandable. But we’re therefore left with a bit of a mixed message. I sense this is a call for black people to reject working with their oppressors as an option and to, instead, take up arms against them. But it isn’t half strange that the denouement of this play is a black man killing another black man. There’s a risk that this plays too close to fulfilling the white colonialist accusation that black men are incapable of running a country.
And, of course, I feel awkward criticising this play at all as I’m a privileged middle-class white woman, so what business do I have picking holes in a play about racism written by a Black African-American woman? What do I know about racism? What do I know about Africa?
Yet, for all my muddle with the above, the central thrust of this play, that violence matters, is intoxicating and exciting. Oppressors do not heed the oppressed when they ask for emancipation; they only listen when it is taken from them by force.
That’s an important message, a crucial one. And one that history has proved true time and time again. It’s just a shame that, for me, this inspiring message is mixed in with a few hard-to-ignore concerns.
National Theatre, London to June 2, 2016