Lorraine Hansberry was an African-American playwright who died tragically young, aged just 34, in 1965. In her short career, she became the first African-American female writer to be performed on Broadway and was the inspiration for Nina Simone’s ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. Her last play, ‘Les Blancs’, which she didn’t live to see produced, is the latest in the National Theatre’s At Home season, streaming from tonight (Thursday July 2) for a week for free.
‘Les Blancs’ (‘The Whites’) is a rumination on Black identity… and so much more. Hansberry’s only work to be set in Africa, it’s sprawling, sometimes abstract, sometimes deeply personal. Set in the last days of colonial Africa, it charts the struggle for independence in both the domestic and mythic spheres, with a huge cast, dance, music, all sorts. At one level, the staging of it mimics the struggle for Black self-identity on a continent raped by Europeans. On another, the challenge it poses to audiences reflects the unknowability of Africa for its encroaching settlers and the need for the Africans to confront their own demons.
Whichever way you read it, it’s a play that poses many and various questions to theatre-makers. Luckily, in Yaël Farber, who directs this 2016 production, the National Theatre has a real theatrical superstar. Not an uncontroversial one, though. Farber is white South African, and, as such, has her own particular relationship to what it means to be African.
Her take on ‘Les Blancs’ has all the theatrical flair for which she is known. ‘The first ten minutes of “Les Blancs” are a jaw-dropping setting-out of Farber’s stall,’ said our review at the time. ‘An overwhelming surge of sights, sounds, smells – total theatre. The cast solemnly emerge in small groups and walk slowly through the darkened grounds of Soutra Gilmour’s skeletal wooden house: a white mission in a nameless, South Africa-like country. It is surrounded by sand, and beyond that, the African night, thick with haze and unfamiliar music, stalked by a quartet of magnificent South African singers and musicians, and Sheila Atim as The Woman, a silent, stylised avatar of the continent.’
While accepting that in its immense scope, ‘Les Blancs’ is occasionally a bit thinly characterised, we highlighted some excellent performances, especially Danny Sapani as brooding Black intellectual Tshembe. ‘It’s finely acted, with standouts besides Sapani including Anna Madeley’s well-meaning but completely blinkered white Dr Marta Gotterling; James Fleet, as her wise, weary colleague Willy who finally explains the truth about the relationship between missionaries and locals in a stunning late speech; and Atim, ineffably haunting as The Woman.’
‘Les Blancs’ addresses the issues of the US civil rights movement through the prism of colonialism. It’s a work by a Black LGBTQ+ female writer in which Africa is conceptualised as a woman. When it was staged by the National Theatre four years ago, it was heralded as enormously timely. Right now, it’s off the charts.