The National Theatre has not had an audience of theatre goers for 4 months so they have live streamed performances of some great plays. I am new to Hansberry’s play ‘Les Blancs’ even though I’m very familiar with ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ as I’ve taught it for a few years now.
The play opens on a dark, smoky stage creating an eerie and solemn mood. The audience is pre warned of racially motivated violence so I prepared myself for some pretty difficult messages to sift through.
I liked the American journalist device an outsider looking in hoping he has the answers to ‘300 years of struggle’. The role of ‘Christianity and the mission is centre stage. A crude hospital has been set and children are offered a basic education. Interestingly, grown black men are referred to as children throughout. In the white settlers minds they never reach a state of maturity and independence.
By Act 2 the didactic style lessons until you become fully immersed in this story that reveals to the audience and the protagonist you must pick a side. Tshembe personifies Africa ‘the rape of a continent’; ‘still yesterday for Africa’ and ‘great gashes’. The three brothers battle for the future of Africa: Eric the revolutionary, Abioseh christianity and Tshembe pacificism.
Reverend Neilsen is an important but absent character throughout the play well meaning but a weapon of oppression in the colonists arsenal. He uses the Bible to keep them in their place any sense of fairness, equality, independence is seen as a disturbance to the ‘natural order’ in his mind. The play is extremely didactic in Act 1 but I believe its absolutely necessary to fully engage with Tshembe. The characature of Colonel Rice helps to present an alternative point of view of the colonisers not written in the history books the use of the words ‘Kaffir’, ‘savages’ and general dehumanisation of black Africans is rather hard to digest.
The final scenes show the descent into bloody overthrow rather than ‘civilised’ talk and compromise. Madam Neilsen presents a dilemma for the audience she is frail physically and metaphorically blind. She has a degree of empathy for Africans but she realizes her privileged viewpoint is part of the problem. She inspires loyalty in Tshembe as she has effectively taught him to love rather than hate but eventually she inspires him to take up the fight for independence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the play as it was good to see colonialism from the point of view of the black African. It fits in so timely with the Black Lives Matter movement and the lynching of George Floyd in the USA. Hansberry emphasizes seeing and listening to each other to prevent blood shed but she also shows the lack of value placed on thousands of black African life in comparison to one white life.
‘A Raisin in the Sun’ starts to explore African independence through Beneatha and Asagai, ‘Les Blancs’ reveals Hansberry’s education and research into these unseen, unheard voices.