- Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry
A tall, angular woman clad in strips of brown cloth and covered in battle paint advanced slowly across the stage at the beginning of the arresting revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, directed by Yaël Farber at the National Theatre. Accompanied by the sounds of drums and the call-and-response of a group of women elders, the haunting figure (a majestic Sheila Atim) eventually disappeared into the shadows, taking with her two spear-like objects—symbols of war—that she collected from the earth, and leaving in her wake myriad questions about the inevitability and messiness of revolution. Those questions would reverberate throughout Farber’s epic reimagining of Hansberry’s final play. Equally resonant throughout the evocative production were the vital debates it activated and staged about the complexities (and incompleteness) of the project of black liberation.
Les Blancs was initially produced on Broadway in 1970, eleven years after her A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by an African American woman to open on the Great White Way. Hansberry had started drafting Les Blancs, however, nearly a decade earlier amid the various struggles for black freedom that began to proliferate across the globe during the 1950s and intensified in the '60s. Hopeful that the project could offer important insights about those movements and, indeed, inspire social action, she labored tirelessly on the script, reshaping and revising it even as she battled pancreatic cancer. The drama nevertheless was still a work in progress when the artist-activist died in 1965 at the too-young age of 34. As such, Hansberry’s former husband and literary executor Robert Nemiroff, who [End Page 661]
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assumed responsibility for realizing her vision, had to draw on old notes, outlines, and drafts to fashion the work into a performable text. Shrewdly, Farber, working in collaboration with dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg, sought permission to revisit the playwright’s records and emend Nemiroff’s production script for her National Theatre debut. The astute adjustments that she and Lichtenberg made to the play at once served to sharpen its storytelling and imbue it with a fresh sense of urgency. They also helped to accentuate the many tensions between the disparate worlds and worldviews that Hansberry represents and interrogates in the drama.
The performances given by the top-notch ensemble that Farber assembled at the National Theatre further illuminated and animated these tensions. Unfolding “yesterday, today, tomorrow—but not very long after” in a fictional African colony destined for an uprising, Hansberry centers Les Blancs on Tshembe Matoseh, an expatriate who, at the outset of the play, travels to his childhood village from Europe to join his two brothers, Abioseh (Gary Beadle) and Eric (Tunji Kasim), for the funeral of their father. Having left his family to seek better educational and economic opportunities abroad, Tshembe returns profoundly ambivalent about his homeland and the strengthening underground resistance movement to the prevailing colonial order that he once participated in and his father was helping to captain before his death. In a commanding performance that displayed tremendous subtlety and range and was full of revelations, Danny Sapani embraced the character’s many contradictions. Tshembe’s decision in the play’s climactic moment to commit fratricide by shooting Abioseh, who, having joined the Catholic priesthood, opposed the clandestine insurgency and threatened to expose it, registered as unexpected and unsettling accordingly.
While Elliot Cowan’s performance as Charlie Morris, the white liberal journalist who arrives in the colony from America on the same day as Tshembe hoping to write a story about the virtues of the medical outfit established there by European missionaries, offered fewer surprises, it was no less compelling. Hansberry uses the spirited exchanges between Charlie and Tshembe to explore arguments about a range of topics in Les Blancs, including the irrelevance of what Tshembe calls “the conscience of imperialism” and the impossibilities of...