Tunji Kasim as Eric and Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoseh. Photo by Johan Persson.
It is the type of play that invites the audience to revisit again and again to glean that bit more from every watching.
Important. There are words, so many words to describe this momentous production breath-taking, affecting, moving, startling and so much more. But the word that rises above all the rest is ‘important’. How did Lorraine Hansberry get it so completely? I have seen many a play, production, read many a book and not found one that illuminated the complexity of colonisation and provides such a solid foundation as to why we are where we are as Les Blancs (see listing) has done.
This was truly not only an important piece of theatre but a beautiful work of art. Every element of the space was utilised to draw us into this dream like world, which is so frighteningly, nightmarishly real. The revolving stage combined with the lighting and the hauntingly beautiful voices of the women of the Ngqoko Cultural Group, an ensemble committed to maintaining the indigenous music, songs and traditions of the rural Xhosa communities, evoke an increasing tension commensurate to the tension unfolding before us.
The stage rotating like a clock or at times the shadows provoking a feeling of an hourglass with the sand running quicker and quicker to some looming conclusion, or as Madam Neilson put it the end of an epoch. Les Blancs is a story set in an African country under colonialization ‘yesterday, today, tomorrow – but not long after that’. The story centres around a mission clinic in a rural area which has been in the village for over 40 years led by a Reverend Neilson. We come to the story at troubled times along with an American liberal journalist Charles Morris who is eager to see the wonders of the work of the mission and how the west lives and works so positively with the African.
At this time we also see the return of a son of the village Tshembe Matoseh who has seen ‘Europe and America’ and returned home ‘changed’ drawn back by an event that will impact the village and the increasingly tenuous relationship between the village and the mission. The interactions between Tshembe and Morris are rich and provide a window into the type of conversations that need to happen in today’s society, in so many spaces, for the healing of our histories to begin. We enter at a time where tensions between the indigenous and the settlers are at breaking point and ‘the ties that bind’ are feeling the strain of being pulled by two opposing sides.
To say this production has many layers does not go far enough to give you an indication of all that is contained within these powerful 2 hours and 45 minutes. It is the type of play that invites the audience to revisit again and again to glean that bit more from every watching.
The matriarchs and singers. Photo by Johan Persson
Les Blancs is a must see for students of history, diaspora peoples of all cultures seeking understanding of their identity and everyone who is confused about the mounting violence, conflict and cultural confusion we are living in today
This play was of particular importance to Hansberry so she fought to complete it before she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. She wanted to create something meaningful and I believe that she and those she requested to complete the work after her, particularly her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff who stayed her close work confidant until her passing, did an admirable job. In one of her journal entries near the end of her time she wrote ‘If anything should happen – before tis done- may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts’, this production shows that her trust was well placed and her goal achieved.
As Les Blancs came to an end I was left with an overwhelming feeling that manifested as a reverberating question in my mind ‘What am I doing now to help?’ The play was written between 1960 and 1964 but it seems almost timeless as many of the themes, historical ripples and injustices are still occurring yesterday, today, tomorrow and on.
Les Blancs is a must see for students of history, diaspora peoples of all cultures seeking understanding of their identity and everyone who is confused about the mounting violence, conflict and cultural confusion we are living in today.
Get £10 tickets to see Les Blancs at the National Theatre