Lorraine Hansberry made history when her celebrated award-winning 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Her second play, five years later, was The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. It received mixed reviews and eked out a run of 100 performances.
In January the following year, when she was just 34, she died of pancreatic cancer, leaving behind the unfinished manuscript of Les Blancs, which she considered to be her best, most important work. Had she lived beyond the completion of the play’s earliest drafts, her assumption might have been justified. But as reworked by her former husband Robert Nemiroff, Les Blancs – despite the efficacy of Yael Ferber’s epic staging with all the resources of the National Theatre helping to prop it up – remains a work in progress, a didactic drama about colonial imperialism and the clash of cultures in tribal Africa.
Described by Hansberry as a play “for yesterday, today and tomorrow – but not very long after that,” the setting is an unnamed colony represented by a tribal village and a missionary hospital and run by a dedicated group of whites, who, with limited resources and against the constant threat of a black uprising, are doing their best to care for the natives.
As the play begins, two very different men simultaneously arrive at the village. One of them, Tshembe Motoseh (Danny Sapani) is an expat married to a white woman and living the life of a European intellectual. He’s there for the funeral of his father, a much-respected tribal elder. The other is Charlie Morris (Elliot Cowan), a liberal American journalist on an assignment to write glowingly about the missionary and its work.
From the outset, the two men, with their polar viewpoints, lock antlers. Charlie’s informal, optimistic outlook sits uncomfortably with Tshembe, whose deeply conflicted approach to the life he has chosen for himself weighs heavily on him. The divided loyalty he feels both towards his brother, a Catholic priest (Gary Beadle), and troubled half-brother (Tunji Kasim), as well as the whites who contributed to his education, constantly haunts him. So does the well-being of the tribe he was born into.
Other characters include the blind, ageing wife (Sian Phillips) of the missionary’s revered founder, the hospital’s dedicated doctors (James Fleet, Anna Madeley), a Major (Clive Francis) aggressively in charge of keeping the natives in their place, and a silent character simply called The Woman (Sheila Atim), whose strange, Giacometti-like appearance, (seen only by Tshembe in his imagination) symbolises the haunted spectre of a nation in crisis. Finally there is Ngago described by Hansberry as “a poet-warrior invoking the soul of his people,” but whose climactic exhortations (as delivered by Roger Jean Nsengiyumva) I found almost incomprehensible.
Though the best scenes express the differing points of view between Tshembe and Charlie, the play too frequently offers declamation in place of dialogue, with distinct echoes of Shaw one minute, Chekhov the next and an overall structure, with its tribal choruses and impending sense of tragedy, redolent of the Greeks.
There is no doubting Hansberry’s passion, but her theme – that the moral imperative is freedom at all costs, even if it means genocide for the whites – was controversial when the play originally premiered on Broadway, and remains so today, despite the seismic shift in contemporary African politics.
What saves the evening from the tedium of its familiar arguments about the pros and cons of colonisation is Farber’s vigorous, full-blooded direction and the striking visual accompaniment of a set by Soutra Gilmour that constantly revolves between tribal village and missionary hospital. Invaluable, too, are Adam Cork’s atmospheric score, with its muted drumbeat throughout, Tim Lutkin’s noir-like lighting, and most of the central performances. Sapani is especially fine as the conflicted Tshembe, as is Cowan as the earnest, sensitive Charlie and Francis as the virulently determined major in charge of keeping the peace.
Its flaws notwithstanding, this is just the sort of work the National should be doing.