Writer Lorraine Hansberry was a remarkable woman who, despite her early death at age 34, conquered Broadway as the first black writer to see her play ‘Raisin in the Sun’ performed on stage in 1959. She followed her father into activism and wrote for the newspaper ‘Freedom’, working alongside Africans and African Americans. This work; and seeing a production called ‘Les Negres’ (The Blacks), inspired Hansberry to write ‘Les Blancs’, which she began writing in 1960 and completed it just before her death. After her death the play was adapted by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff. The 1970 Broadway production was staged at the Longacre Theatre and the National Theatre’s production took place in 2016.
The play follows the visit of journalist Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan), to a Mission in Africa. The Mission was established by Reverend Nielson with his wife Madame Neilson (Sian Phillips) who set it up 40 years before with the idea they would be able to bring some help to the needy. Charlie’s initial views are rather naïve, as he believes that the blacks need help and the Mission is a wonderful institution that should be revered. He is a little puzzled by the attitude of Dr Willy Dekoven (James Fleet) who appears to be unfeeling, although we see later on in the play, that he has merely become numbed to plight of the Mission and the growing conflict which surrounds it. Dr Marta Gotterling (Anna Madeley) has been at the Mission for five years and remains committed to the care of her patients. Meanwhile, we hear of the death of Tshembe’s father (founder of the Resistance), and Tshembe (Danny Sapani) has returned to Africa from England to attend his funeral. He re-acquaints himself with his brothers Abioseh (Gary Beadle) and Eric (Tunji Kasim) and is surprised that Abioseh is studying to become a Catholic priest.
Tshembe is wandering in a metaphorical no man’s land trying to find himself. He is well travelled and knows the ways of the West but dislikes the colonialization of his home nation. On the one hand he has a European wife and son at home in England, but he feels the call of Africa and he sees the blacks being oppressed by the whites led by Major Rice (Clive Francis) who is now in control of military operations in the area. Major Rice believes the blacks are lazy, but Dr Dekoven believes he understands the situation and feels that the blacks just don’t want to work for the whites.
The set (designed by Soutra Gilmour) revolves on the stage and uses lighting (designed by Tim Lutkin) to create times of day, but also adjusts the atmosphere. The green tinged subtle lighting on the Mission’s structure seems to reflect the greenery of the jungle, accompanied by sounds of Africa drifting across the stage with singers creating an African mood.
The Woman played by Sheila Atim, is a silent role, but her presence on stage haunts Tshembe. She appears when the conflict within him is at its greatest and seems to be drawing him back to Africa. The way Atim moves around the stage dragging the fire pit by a chain seems to symbolise the flames of unrest in Africa.
This wonderful production tells a story that is still being told today in our modern society. To see this production go to https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/les-blancs Please also donate on the website if you can afford to do so.
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 2nd July 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★