So big surprise isn’t the National Theatre (RE this one time to distinguish it from the one in Washington DC) doing a play by Lorraine Hansberry, but that they’ve chosen to do Les Blancs – an play that this fantastic American playwright left unfinished at her early death. And the National hasn’t just revived the Broadway version cobbled together from her manuscripts, but has developed a new text with involvement from the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. This is more than a revival: it’s a substantial investment in an American writer dead some forty years …
Did you want to know the plot? An American missionary has just arrived in some unnamed country Africa to write about a group of missionaries who are holding on as the world around them is slowly turning into civil war – a war where those the missionaries have helped will come to exact vengeance against them. This play looks at just what exactly has this help been, and the answer is not pretty. And instead of taking the white American as the protagonist, we are sent to focus on a different outsider – Tshembe (Daniel Sapani), a man who was born, black, in this country, but has lived for years in Europe. So this story is not about who “we” as a European (or American) theatrical audience might focus on, but what the true story of this country is, and what the true story of colonialism is.
Hansberry struggles with pulling this tale out of its historicity (people’s thoughts about colonialism have evolved since it was written), unable to become unAmerican in her viewpoints and (per the script presented) not entirely able to develop the characters out of viewpoints and into three dimensionality. (I found A Season in the Congo much better because of its historic specificity but also because of its choice to plunge deep into character.) At the time, though, I think her revelations about the kind of atrocities the white settlers exacted on the black populace – i.e. cutting off the hands of the locals – would have been real news to the people attending this play.
Despite its shortcomings, however, this play is clearly still relevant, and to an audience that was of varied ethnic and national origins. The house wasn’t full (shamefully), but it was hugely diverse, with maybe as much as 50% non-Caucasian audience the night I went. This programming choice makes me think the National got the gist of my point about the lack of diversity in UK theater audiences: it’s about subject matter and (possibly) casting. Does this show speak to the black audiences of London? Oh yes it does. And I, a white member, benefitted from being in this more diverse audience, because I was able to hear laughter and rumblings and all sorts of (polite) responses to what was being said, responses that were coming from people who had had a different experience of the world than I have, who saw the relationship of white settlers to the people they colonized much more clearly than I did, people who knew a hell of a lot more about the self-delusions of racists than I did. (Note: as an American I often find myself laughing or not laughing entirely off synch from audiences here: in some ways I always know where I do not fit in, but in the case of this show, I felt like I was getting an insight into Hansen’s play I would not have had if I had watched it in a room by myself.) This show is really a high note in the National’s programming for the year, and, as an American, I can’t help but feel grateful that they went to so much work to ensure the work of my compatriot could get the attention (and investment) it deserved. Thanks, guys!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 5, 2016. It continues through June 2nd.)