AiW Guest Katarzyna Kubin
The National Theatre’s production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, Les Blancs, directed by Yaël Farber, involved phenomenal use of sound, music and lighting, live fire on stage, and a nuanced mastery of the smallest details: from the ever-present scent of incense and charred wood, to the opening image of sand falling from the closed fists of actors as they circled the stage. Before the play even began, the comfortable separation between audience and actors – reality and play – was breached in a most unapologetic way through the senses. Once the action started, the performance struck all the more forcefully on the already softened and primed senses.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote Les Blancs 11 years after her more popularly known A Raisin in the Sun. The Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun made Hansberry the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway, and the youngest person and first African American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play. The main subject of Les Blancs is colonialism and anti-colonial movements, which at the time Hansberry was writing, were culminating in the formation of newly independent states on the African continent. The play thus displays Hansberry’s exceptionally broad perspective on and insight into different situations of repression around the world and her convictions about the potential of connecting liberation movements.
“I’ve seen too much”
The setting of the play is an unnamed African country that has long been ruled by white colonial settlers. In Farber’s production, the script was adapted to delicately suggest the events are situated in South Africa, Farber’s country of origin. Specifically, the setting is a colonial missionary outpost with an attached health clinic in a small town. The black locals constitute a majority to the few white colonial missionaries, officials and doctors. The play begins as the opposition to colonial rule achieves a critical and desperate moment of resistance. Violence by both blacks and whites grows more extreme and mutually indiscriminate as the play progresses.
It is in this context that the main character, Tshembe Matoseh (Danny Sapani), returns
from England to visit his long-ailing father, one of the founders of the opposition movement. He arrives one day too late, however, and finds his family and friends already preparing the funeral. He is in many ways an outsider in this community: because of his long time abroad, his level of education, his worldly travel and experience, his marriage to a white woman.
As the violence of the opposition is matched by an increasingly vicious response from the colonial rulers – curfews, imprisonment, torture, execution, collective punishment – Tshembe is pulled back into local politics. The loss of his father is displaced by debates about strategies of resisting colonial rule. Those around Tshembe adopt different approaches and insist he join or follow: Abioseh Matoseh (Gary Beadle) finds insight and strength in the Christian religion, and believes that independence involves adopting the best from the whites and moving on in partnership. In contrast, the leader of the opposition movement turns to violence as the only form of resistance to colonial injustices, perceiving all whites as enemies. Tshembe’s mixed race brother, Eric (Tunji Kasim), often appears as a body (in one scene literally sprawled on the ground) whose fate is debated by other characters, symbolic not only of the liminal position of people of mixed ethnic background, but also of “Africa” as it is often portrayed, abjectly subject and passive. The spectrum of possible positions regarding colonialism and anti-colonialism portrayed in the play includes an equally complex rendering of the white characters: the female doctor, Marta Gotterling (Anna Madeley), whose self-sacrifice to serve in Africa is exposed as racist “white man’s burden” mentality; the missionary man, physically absent from the play but a constant point of reference, who considers the black locals as his “children”; the dejected and resigned doctor, Willy Dekoven (James Fleet), who feels trapped by “white privilege,” hopelessly seeing the construct of race driving the vehicle of colonialism, devouring all those along its path regardless of their will or intent.
The play unravels the possibilities of different positions, like rings on water that do not exist in isolation but emerge one out of another. Through the debates staged between characters, the audience is shunted, at roller coaster pace, between opposing views on such issues as non-violent struggle, the construct of race and what constitutes racism, the risk of reducing the independence movement to nationalist goals. The play refuses to signal any position as optimal, a philosophical and political stance that is most poignantly given voice at the end of one scene with Tshembe’s cry: “I have seen too much to take sides!” At the same time, the play never falters in condemning colonialism and institutionalized racism.
In her original script, Hansberry considered making the main character a woman. Ultimately, the script calls for a male in the main role, but includes an unnamed female character who remains a mute presence throughout the play. Sheila Atim, in the role of “the woman” in Farber’s production, gave a haunting performance as she was witnessed by audience gliding, slow motion, along the set, clad in rags wound tightly around her sand, chalk and red-stained body. Her unnamed, background presence, as prominent as it was silent, is a sensitive and powerful acknowledgement of the marginalized status of women in the Civil Rights and anti-colonial movements. Notably, “the woman” is the only black female character to have figured prominently on stage.
The scenery in this production, breathtakingly beautiful for its simplicity, gestured to the center-periphery binary in postcolonial theory, which also structured the logic of so many anti-colonial movements. The play’s action took place around the mission structure, which, like a compass needle, literally rotated during the course of the play, at times by the brute force of the characters who pushed it, and sometimes by virtue of the play’s inertia. The center of the structure was inhabited mostly by the white characters, while the periphery by black characters, who entered the mission structure to varying degrees depending on their position in the local community and vis-à-vis the whites. An ominous ambiance came not only from the lighting and sound, but also from the fact that the people on the periphery constituted a majority, their position transfiguring, as shadows do with shifts in light, from that of “exclusion” to that of an “imminent attack”.
What’s at stake?
In a key scene, a discussion developed between Tshembe and a white, American journalist, Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan), about Morris’ motivations for coming to the country. The conversation quickly turns to the question of reconciliation across racial lines. Tshembe argues that Morris’ intentions are self-centered, that any resolution will ultimately benefit only him and other whites. Morris refutes that his search for reconciliation is driven by a need for absolution. “Then whose benefit is it?” cries Tshembe, and scene ended, the lights went out, swallowing each audience-member into a pocket of silence and darkness to confront the question alone.
This verbal altercation between Tshembe and Morris – the actors hung on to each other’s words, launched oral assaults with the force of their whole bodies – plays out as an homage to non-violence, but also highlights that at stake is finding a way of reconciliation for both “sides.” Blaming the “white” Morris and sympathizing with the “black” Tshembe is a resolution that ultimately disempowers Tshembe, reducing him to a victim seeking reparations, a position that is plainly impossible for him. Indeed, the play questions the idea of justice along racial lines. The idea that rarely is anyone solely “victim” or solely “perpetrator” becomes the crux of suspense throughout as alliances between characters shift and consequently audience sentiments toward the characters also change. Moreover, the play indicates that reconciliation would have to account for the existence of also “black” perpetrators and “white” victims. Similarly, the play questions the notion that positions of victim and perpetrator can be passed on to future generations. How to make sense of an inherited legacy of injustice among perpetrators while also accounting for the singularity of the individual? “Where were you when we were holding peace rallies and petitioning for our civil rights?” yells Tshembe at Morris. “In kindergarten,” replies Morris.
Finally, the play is also a consideration of the individual’s implication in liberation movements. In leaving his country, Tshembe also left social and political activism for the peace of family and domesticity in England. His return to the country was motivated by his father’s illness, but Tshembe is simultaneously pulled back into politics. The play thus asks: are there any circumstances that would spare the personal from the political? To what extent is the implication of the individual in politics a choice at all? And if it is not a choice, then what does that mean for the individual in society?
Les Blancs confronts the perspective of never-ending dilemmas and problems as a result of the construction of race and the heritage of colonialism. The possible strategies and positions to be taken in opposition movements appear as infinite constellations, which form and reform timelessly. Breaching sensory and physical barriers in the staging and artistic design – Farber: “It’s about creating an immersive experience inside the given circumstances of a society” – was intimately bound to complicating contemporary temporal and geographical divisions. Put on in the elite National Theatre whose patrons remain primarily upper and middle class, white Europeans, Farber’s production indicated a continuum between the inequalities of today and of the colonial period. Through its unflinching reenactment of colonial violence, the play created a most uncomfortable experience for the audience. Many cringed, recoiled, in some cases wept. Such responses to acts of violence and injustice are rare outside the theatre. The production thus raised questions about the significance of colonial history in current times not just abstractly through the play’s content, but also tangibly, in real-time, through the staging.
The three hours of the play passed swiftly as the grains of sand from the palms of the actors in the opening scene. They also left a heavy weight. The more intimately one identifies with the questions raised in the play, the more difficult it is to choose a position and to guard it. More burdensome still, is the awareness that the issues written into the play by Hansberry in the 1960’s remain relevant today, not only in the case of civil rights for racial minorities, but also for such contemporary issues as immigration, neocolonialism, and the rights of LGBTQI people. Yet this most prodigious staging of Les Blancs by Yaël Farber also urged to trust in the possibility of justice. Delicate lights steadfastly shimmered in the background throughout this production, adding a sense of humaneness and dignity amidst the tensions that dominated the action, but they also figured as a reminder that while the struggle is infinite, so are the resources to be drawn from.
 See the full interview with Farber here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/directors-katie-mitchell-and-yael-farber-on-extreme-violence-in-les-blancs-and-cleansed-a6877561.html
Read more about Les Blancs on the National Theatre website.
Katarzyna Kubin is a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, based in the Center for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies (CCLPS). Her research explores how affect manifests in selected postcolonial texts with the aim of critically engaging with issues relevant to postcolonial theory, such as, the victim/oppressor binary, identity, representation, and authorial ethics. She completed her MA Degree at the University of Sussex (School of English, 2013), where she wrote her thesis on Zoë Wicomb’s novel, David’s Story. She received her BA Degree from the University of Pennsylvania, USA (2003). Her current research interests span postcolonial theory, African studies, affect theory, ethics, and cultural studies. She is also co-founder and current Executive Board Member of the Foundation for Social Diversity (FSD), a non-government organization based in Warsaw, Poland, that deals with issues of migration, equality and social diversity.