Lorraine Hansberry’s death at age 34, half a century ago, left her play “Les Blancs” unfinished. Compiled by her ex-husband, it’s an extraordinary piece — more didactic than dramatic, perhaps, but a cross-section of colonialism that presents the situation from all sides. Angry but even-handed, the monumental simplicity of director Yael Farber’s (“Mies Julie”) staging creates a space for careful reflection of a delicate issue — and on the National Theater’s main stage, that feels momentous in its own right.
Hansberry’s play presents us with a spectrum of colonial perspectives, from the ardent, racist Major Rice (Clive Francis), who rules with a whip-hand and enters dragging a bloodied local behind him on a leash, to the leaders of a violent insurgency against white rule.
Set in an unnamed African nation, “Les Blancs” centers on a local mission house, run by the absent Reverend Neilsen, as unrest is rising. Into this come two outsiders, both stepping onto the stage from the auditorium.
American journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan) hopes to capture the country on paper. Though unable to throw off his white, western gaze, he comes to see the corruption and the complacency at the heart of the mission. For all the good they do, its doctors and teachers benefit from the imbalance and hold the country back.
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Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani), meanwhile, is a returning emigre, back from Europe for his father’s funeral and finding a conflicted family and a divided community. His brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) has converted to become a Catholic priest, a move Tshembe views as a betrayal, but nor can he subscribe to the rebels’ violent uprising despite seeing the effects of its empowerment. With a younger half-brother (Tunji Kasim) – mixed race and mixed up – in hoc to both sides, Tshembe recognizes the need to act, but can’t see how.
“Les Blancs” sits differently in Britain than it would in the U.S. Written as the American civil rights movement was splintering into violent and non-violent factions — integration against separatism — it was partly analogous. Hansberry, writing from her hospital bed, embodied that dilemma in Tshembe: Should he reason with the oppressors or rise up against them? Caught between words and action, he becomes a kind of Hamlet figure, haunted by a ghost of his own – a dancing African woman. In this production, performer Sheila Atim doesn’t dance, she stalks the stage as a brittle, malnourished specter.
That ghostly quality comes to dominate this depiction of a former colonial power. Set designer Soutra Gilmour’s mission house is a skeletal frame of sun-bleached wood, immaterial and spectral, as if, though long destroyed, it still haunts the present. It’s impossible not to hear fresh resonance in the talk of terrorists, their numbers bolstered by each imposition on the native community. Gunshots rip through the air in Adam Cork’s sound design. So, later, do jet engines.
It doesn’t entirely work as drama. It’s too concertedly classical for that — too overtly symbolic and too full of speechifying. At first, the decision to play it straight seems the wrong one. Such a literary text, so of its time, might have benefited from deconstruction. But Farber’s staging is more operatic than it is dramatic. It asks to be heard — really heard — rather than believed, and Farber’s cast stand up its various viewpoints as a kind of staged debate on a big public stage. That’s vital, allowing complexity and contradictions to filter through. A chorus of four Xhosa women (two in white face) watch alongside us, almost sitting in judgement.