Les Blancs

Posted by Laurence Green

Les Blancs is an illuminating and powerful play about the chaos of change during Africa's break with its colonial past. Writes Laurence Green.

Les BlancsA searing portrait of the conflict between white imperialism and black African nationalism is provided in American playwright Lorraine Hansberry's final drama Les Blancs (Olivier Auditorium at the National Theatre) which comes to the London stage in a gripping new production by Yael Farber.

An African country teeters on the edge of civil war. A society prepares to drive out its colonial present and claim an independent future. Racial tensions boil over. Two visitors arrive at a hospital mission run by European settlers deep in the jungle: one, Charles Morris, an American journalist of liberal sympathies seeking to write an account of the mission's work. The second is Tshembe Matoseh who returns for his father's funeral after a period travelling abroad, during which time he has married a white women, fathered a son and settled in London. He now finds himself having to confront philosophical, political and personal anxieties. His brother Abioseh, a Catholic priest who dreams of being a bishop, has betrayed his people for a life of comfort, and his young half-brother Eric has become a listless alcoholic.

Lorraine Hansberry, who died in 1965 at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer, grew up in Chicago when the city had strict housing laws segregating blacks and whites, so she had first-hand experience of the evils of racism. Her best-known work, A Raisin in the Sun marked the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. She left several unfinished manuscripts including Les Blancs which Hansberry herself considered her most important work, and which was completed by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff.

This illuminating and powerful play about individuals caught in the maelstrom of change and facing painful choices in their struggle for freedom is as relevant today as when it was first written. Indeed, it has an urgency and insight that seems undimmed by time. South African director Yael Farber's absorbing drama which is invigorated by chants percussion and nimble movement, tackles its moral complexities with great assurance.

Danny Sapani gives a commanding performance as Tshembe, a man who chose personal happiness over idealism but, back among his family and his tribe, finds that choice impossible to sustain. Elliot Cowan is most persuasive as Charlie Morris, the American journalist, and their highly charged arguments are among the play's most compelling scenes. Strong support is given by Gary Beadle as Abioseh, the priest who has embraced Western values, Clive Francis as the racist administrator Major Rice and Sian Phillips as Madame Neilsen, the blind and elderly wife of the head of the mission, who comments ruefully at one point, "the less one sees of the world the better!"

Soutra Gilmour's revolving stage design atmospherically conveys the scenes of Tsembe's old family home and the local mission hospital.

The single most important feature of this production is the silent, ubiquitous presence of The Woman (Sheila Atim) who haunts Tshembe's imagination and embodies a suffering nation.

A humane, yet disturbing play, then, that remains in the mind long after the final curtain calls.

Les Blancs

Runs at the Olivier Auditorium until Thursday 2 June 2016

Box office: 020 7452 3000

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