Far From Black or White
National Theatre | London
directed by Yaël Farber
Standing ovations at the interval as well as at the end on press night tell you all you need to know about the ongoing power of Lorraine Hansberry's dizzying interrogation of white colonialism versus black freedom-fighting, and the deeply moving quality of this excellent production, entrallingly directed by Yaël Farber. The clapping and cheering were a welcome release of tension. Funny lines - like the observation that white people "wrinkle faster" than black people as they age - are rare in a play whose intense seriousness keeps you spellbound on the edge of your seat for over three hours.
Set in an unnamed African country at some point after World War II and before 1965, when Hansberry died aged 34 of pancreatic cancer, Les Blancs begins with and returns to the haunting, timeless image of a woman refugee walking around dazed, played mesmerisingly by Sheila Atim, who was brilliant in Klook's Last Stand at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago. She's a sort of Everywoman from every war zone since the beginning of time. Mists or smoke from burning shanty villages swirl around her as she stumbles forward as if in a dream on designer Soutra Gilmour's revolving circle of a stage. The rickety set is, alternately, a tribal hut and a Christian mission building, complete with a verandah and drinks cabinet (under lock and key) for its do-gooding white inhabitants.
The play unflinchingly examines the impact of national and global political turmoil - the relentless surge of history - on individuals. People's motives, morality and life goals are thrown into flux by the tide of nationalism sweeping Africa (and elsewhere, though the focus here is Africa). The two main characters in Les Blancs have both arrived in the village from abroad as the events of the play unfold. Danny Sapani is superb as Tshembe, a native who has returned home for his father's funeral after an extended period living in the US and Europe, where he has a (white) wife and young son. Also newly arrived is an American journalist, Charlie Morris (the convincing Elliot Cowan), who thinks he's here to write a puff-piece on the good works of the godlike but absent Reverend Neilsen (modelled on Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer) and his Mission.
It soon becomes clear to everyone that the real story is far bigger and more troubling. The Reverend's elderly and half-blind wife, Madame Neilsen (Siân Phillips) and Dr Marta Gotterling (Anna Madeley) are both well-intentioned ministers of healthcare and education to the local population, and institutionally racist, although they deny they are racist. So too does Major Rice (played terrifyingly by Clive Francis), a caricature of colonial military oppression whose murderous paternalism thinks nothing of bringing in the Army's hardware to keep the native savages in order if they step out of line. The notion of "Christian forcefulness" being an instrument of colonial oppression may be a cliché, but it's shown here to be a cliché because it's partly true.
Ironically, Tshembe's brother Abioseh (Gary Beadle) has become a Christian priest while Tshembe has been away. On the one hand, 'Father Paul Augustus' (as Abioseh is now called) has sold out and betrayed his homeland by joining the oppressor. On the other, it is a smart, pragmatic way to build relationships with both sides and work towards peace. Their uncle Peter (Sidney Cole), meanwhile, has become a freedom fighter or "terrorist," depending on your point of view.
There's a lot to take in and reflect on in this tale of two worlds clashing: white imperialism and African nationalism. But the story is fiendishly complex, and Tshembe's instinctive urge is to resist the call to take up arms and fight for his beloved nation like a good black warrior; he'd rather be with his wife and child at home in London watching telly. But he is torn, and largely powerless as great forces spin around him. "Write the truth, Mr Morris," the American journalist is implored.
photo | ©Johan Persson