Back in the Olivier theatre where I saw my first play at the National , I was delighted to see the magnificent revolving stage on entry. It gets me every time. The smell, the smoke and the darkened atmosphere set the tone for what I already knew was going to be a touching performance. Yaël Farber, the director, took us to the timeless setting of a colonial village, opening the performance with 3 African female singers projecting their voices across the audience, accompanied by The Woman (Sheila Atim) who remained a strong comforting presence throughout Les Blancs.
Written on her death bed after Lorraine Hansberry experienced various racist attacks and later became a political activist, the script was completed by her former husband, Robert Nemiroff in 1969. Hansberry took theatre on a new journey dedicated to African American people and culture. She wanted to demonstrate the realities of being black, rather than maintaining the mainstream commercial white theatre where absurdism was highly present. Hansberry overcame this huge challenge, which Yaël Farber, tackled with excellent skill and precision.
Les Blancs ‘The Whites’ allows a deep insight into black nationalism and white imperialism. An american journalist (Elliot Cowan) arrives at the home of a kind hearted white family of doctors in preparation for his feature on the civil war called a ‘temple to man’s possibility… a way station in the darkness.’ Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani) returns to his village, hoping to see his father who died the day before his arrival, after travelling Europe and settling in London with his white wife and their child. Tshembe becomes trapped in his thoughts as he sees the arbitrary shootings and racists acts of Major Rice (Clive Francis) on the black people of South Africa. He can not hate the white people, but this dreaded reality is making his way of life difficult. The journalist leaves in two minds as to what he actually wants to portray to America.
Hensberry’s and Nemiroff’s pure commitment to this play bleeds through the script, the actors and on to the audience as rarely have I been to a play where individual monologues are applauded throughout. South African director Yaël Farber, dissects Hensberry’s intentions of truth and honesty so accurately that the audience are left astounded.
Hensberry intended for this play to be timeless, set in ‘yesterday, today, tomorrow, but not very long after that,’ as her diary reads. Originally written in 1965, this timeless setting is still accurate today, and certainly will be tomorrow, but who knows for how long after that.