Before I attended the show I knew little to nothing about Lorraine Hansberry. This may be shocking or not to regular theatregoers, but although I love seeing plays, I am not one. That being said, I have seen a few plays in my life but none have left me standing outside after the curtains, talking for hours with complete strangers about what we’ve just witnessed.
Opening with the deep, guttery chants of a group of old “village-elder” women carrying a smoking bowl, my senses were completely engulfed in the moment; the visual of the strange female figure (played phenomenally by Sheila Atim), beautifully, gracefully and menacingly all at the same time, prowling the stage’s shadows, which felt both empowering and chilling.
The first 10 minutes were awe-inspiring. The solemn movement of the cast swallowed in the ritualistic sounds and smells was unforgettable. This didn’t feel like another approximation of Africa, the singers were the real deal. We are introduced to a ramshackled, emaciated building. revealed to be some sort of missionary hospital which remained the main setting for the duration of play. I remained wide-eyed and the scene was set for a strange and enduring feeling of sadness of ancient ways forgotten, tinged with the despair of impending bloodshed.
Written in the ‘60’s by Hansberry, Director Yaël Farber used the space of the National Theatre ingeniously to create a swirling story of emotion, crisis of identity, race and apathy. We are introduced to the main character, ‘Tshembe’ played by Danny Sapani, and the rest of the characters which form a boiling two-sided broth of white western doctors, colonialists and missionaries on the one side and the local population, seen through the townspeople, servants of the house, the local priest, revolutionaries and our hero’s own family.
Now, I’m a firm believer in reviews not revealing the plot or the details of the story, that is for you to go and experience, untainted by my words, yourself. So rather than take you through any more of the story, I’ll tell you how this play made me feel.
This is a play that somehow manages to change the air in the room; the tension, the kinetic smell of unrest and the shadow of a dark past but even darker future is so real you can feel it pressing against your face as you watch. As much as it is a sensory experience, it is also a highly relevant play. It is a story of hesitation of action, a contradiction of interests. Danny Sapani plays this beautifully through ‘Tshembe’. Myself and my friends often describe how we like to feel we would have acted immediately in dark moments in history, unquestioning in our sacrifice for the greater good. The chance to halt Hitler for example, or standing up to racist police during the Birmingham protests but the truth of whether you would really be so selfless when the moment comes is something I’ve always wondered and ‘Les Blancs’ explores this brilliantly. Our hero is torn on whether to act on the events he watches unfold in his home country and I think is incredibly fitting to the apathy we too often witness and are guilty of ourselves in this country.
Farber subtly builds the theme of “them and us” which at first glance seems foreign and “from-another-time”, almost harmless maybe, but builds into a festering manifestation of falsified difference that allows people to commit, or standby and watch the most horrific atrocities. In this play it is the ominous descent into apartheid but for us now, is it is the refugee crisis right on our shores. The scapegoating of immigrants as a “them”, a “swarm” trying to come over here with “us” on “our” land and “take what we have” is rife through our media and politics. This play, through the internal battle of one mans past, heritage and his future, beautifully shows the dangers of allowing space for a “them and us” in this world. We all share one planet, and are all more related than anyone cares to accept. Yet race, the age old enabler of evil, is still used to create a divide.
As much as it seems dramatic on stage, this play from the 1960s is happening out there. Hats off to Lorraine Hansberry for creating something that carries a message which, is sadly so timeless to be relevant today. This is not just a play young people of colour such as myself should see, but all young people from every background, whether theatre is your thing or not. For the future our world, it is important for us to understand how surprisingly relatable the past is, but more importantly the relationships and ties we form between each other regardless of background.
Les Blancs is a must-see for all, a masterpiece of boldly defiant Africa that European short-sightedness couldn’t erase.
Review by Louis Butler (@ItsLouisVI)