I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to watch
Lorraine Hansberry’s play, Les Blancs, at the National Theatre in April. The
play has received several rave reviews for its compelling and provocative
portrayal of racial identity. At a Youth Forum meeting at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA),
we discussed the play and these are some of the points that were raised.
As we took our seats in the theatre, we embarked on an evening of fascinating sensory experience. The lighting was stark. The air was thick
with smoke, incense, and folk song. The staging was simple but effective, with
the drama unfolding around a wooden ranch. Along with a strong cast, the audience
was introduced to the protagonist, Tshembe Matoseh played by Danny Sapani, who returns
to Africa from his travels in Europe to attend his father’s funeral.
The lighting dims as the set revolves in a clockwise
direction, which we discussed as being the passage of time throughout the play,
though we were unaware as to when or where the story was taking place. The opening
scene drags us into a fictional African country towards the end of a British
colonial mission project. While we might not know what country this is exactly,
we are however all too aware of nations that match the profile, so can begin to
make connections to histories that we’re aware of. Our guesses ranged from
Kenya to South Africa as we tried to locate the play.
The Forum also took its best guess at defining the role of
‘the woman’ played by Sheila Atim. She was the striking, statuesque figure that
wandered eerily from scene to scene, who seemed to symbolise the past in some
way. Atim’s haunting performance left no doubt in our imagination that she was
a spectre of some sort. Her ghostly presence isn’t recognised by the cast, and
only the audience can see her. ‘The woman’ climbs on Tshembe’s back in a scene
mid-play, ensnaring him within the grip of her legs. This sensual act led the Youth
Forum to discuss whether she was the ghost of a past lover whose memory Tshembe
couldn’t forget. Her arms also cradle the lead — perhaps the ghost of his
mother whom we assume deceased. This
maternal and nurturing gesture from ‘the woman’ also led to consideration from
us that she was a figurative representation of Africa, welcoming her son back
to his place of birth. This undefined character, lurking barefoot in her near
bare costume and peering through the audience with her lifeless expression, also
made us think that she was perhaps the ghost of a slave, a plagued memory of a
painful past intended to discomfort the audience. A Youth Forum member
challenged this reading as problematic as it embodies of Africa as a slave —
Africa is more than this!
This sentiment expressed at the Youth Forum meeting at BCA
was a recurring theme in the conversations we had after viewing: what is
Africa? What should Africa be? Who decides what Africa is and what it should be?
Les Blancs challenges how we (think we) view Africa, and serves as a critique
of varying discourses represented in the play that compete to provide a
definitive answer to the questions posed. Tshembe negotiates the unequivocally
racist ideology of the English colonisers whose mission it is to civilise, as well as the dogmatic
direction desired by his naïve brother turned clergyman, and what we concluded
as the unaccounted for vision of the play’s overly simplified native black
population whose intentions beyond rebellion we didn’t learn. Perhaps there has
never been a need for the last group examined here to have a given set of
ideals to determine the future of their land. Similarly, the audience as
spectators aren’t owed an explanation that they can easily comprehend as to
what the country means to its native population.
Raising these complex questions and tackling these difficult
themes masterfully is the success of Les Blancs. Not only is the play
relentlessly thought provoking, it’s also full of powerful imagery and
formidable acting. I hope that the discussions surrounding race, history and
the future will long continue, as they will do in the Youth Forum at BCA.