- Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry
For every revival of a canonical play, an original script goes unproduced, and the urgent need to see meaningful dramatizations of the contemporary moment and its challenges on the stage goes unfulfilled. Such failures are antithetical to the function of theatre, which in no small part involves offering the audience an exploration of new ways to look at the world as it is being experienced in the present moment. Subtly guided by undetected didacticism about how we might best live through moments of crisis and change, we are supposed to leave the theatre both entertained and enriched—with our perceptions of the world and the human condition broadened.
As much as theatre has met this function over the years, few revivals were poised to meet the specific needs of the summer of 2020, which was plagued by the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial unrest. The uncontained spread of the virus made live performances impossible, while stay-at-home orders amid an extended moment of racial unrest heightened our need to hear from our bards. Programming from the “National Theatre at Home” initiative hit the right note in July with its stream of Lorraine Hansberry’s final play, Les Blancs, giving us one week of free access to a 2016 recording of the play as performed at the National Theatre in the UK. The performance, which starred Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh, Gary Beadle as Abioseh Matoseh, and Tunji Kasim as Eric, was ably guided by South African director Yael Farber and originally broadcast by National Theatre Live to cinemas around the world. The stream to YouTube four years later offered timely commentary about racism, imperialism, and colonialism as the world reacted to public displays of police-sanctioned violence against Black bodies.
Les Blancs is set in the fictional African country of Ztembe and uses Tshembe’s return home to bury his father to explore the community’s rejection of the tyranny of colonialism once and for all. Tshembe has settled into his new life in England with his white wife and their biracial son, but the timing of his return home makes his involvement in the emerging revolution unavoidable. He is at once respectful and resentful of the rural mission that sits at the center of the community and the white people who run it, since they made his life as an intellectual possible, on the one hand, but also denied his country its independence on the other. He is similarly ambiguous about the revolt afoot—he understands its necessity but rejects his brother Eric’s beckoning to join the movement. Tshembe is disinterested, too, in his other brother Abioseh’s embrace of religion as a viable response to the colonial situation. What is clear—to Tshembe, the members of his community, and to the audience—is that there is no easy answer to the question of whether and when violence is an appropriate response to oppression.
The rebroadcast of the revival reminded those of us who watched just how much Les Blancs’s interrogation of the intersections of violence and racism transcends geographical boundaries. As one who was attentive to African independence movements in the 1960s, Hansberry knew that communities that teeter on the edge of civil war, in Africa and the United States alike, cannot escape racial reckoning after extended periods of white supremacist rule. Fifty years after its first production, Les Blancs is still disturbingly relevant, and Farber’s production of it was disturbingly beautiful.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the production was that no one aspect outshined the other. The play was unfinished at the time of Hansberry’s untimely death from cancer at the tender age of 34. In 1970, her former husband Robert Nemiroff completed the script and oversaw a month-long run of the play on Broadway (starring James Earl Jones as Tshembe). The 2016 National Theatre production had the benefit of that script and a revised one, completed collaboratively by Farber, Drew Lichtenberg as the play’s dramaturg, and Joi Gresham, the...