In Lorraine Hansberry’s searing play, she never allows the ‘us and them’ dichotomy set up by white missionaries and the black natives to slide into simplicity; the most impressive thing about this astonishing production is how human every single character on stage is, regardless of their politics, opinions or behaviour. It’s a deeply uncomfortable play to watch, and one that makes us confront, head-on, our own assumptions – it is impossible to leave without a heavy burden of white guilt, and a heavier sense that the stain of colonialism will never be erased.
Two men, one white, one black, arrive in an unnamed village in an unnamed African country on the same unnamed day. The white man, Charlie Morris, is an earnest, liberal American journalist, convinced he understands the difficulties faced by the ‘natives’. The black man is the bereaved Tshembe Matoseh, returning to bury his father after living many years in Europe and the US. Both men find a country riven by racial tensions, as the white colonisers respond to escalating violence with more, and more brutal, violence of their own, tightening the screws as they desperately try to maintain a semblance of control.
The turn-the-other-cheek philosophising of the white, Christian missionaries doesn’t extend to the uprisings threatening their cosy existence. As frustrated and furious black people attempt to wrest control of their lives and land away from the colonisers, the white people call for peace. Let’s talk, they say, even as they casually murder dissenters and leave blood in the dust.
This attitude is beautifully captured in Yael Farber’s troubling production. The patronising and paternal attitude of the white characters towards the black characters is fist-clenchingly frustrating and all-too-real. Elliot Cowan is superb as the conflicted journalist who is desperate to demonstrate that he understands what the black characters are going through. He doesn’t – he can’t – and Danny Sapani conveys Tshembe Matoseh’s barely-contained rage exquisitely. Tshembe Matoseh is eloquent, educated, intelligent, and an outsider. With a European wife and a mixed-race baby waiting for him in London, all he wants to do is return, not to get caught up in the escalating violence of his birthplace.
Clive Francis is truly hateful as Major Rice, imposing martial law and dishing out retributive violence without a second thought. The other white characters are more nuanced, with Hansberry skilfully unpicking the cosy lies they tell themselves in order to cope with the oppression that they represent. “This is our home,” cries Sian Phillips’s wonderful Madame Neilsen, trying to understand why she is unwelcome in this land, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was someone else’s home first. The benevolent assumptions and staggering entitlement counteract the kindness that the missionaries think they are showing.
Tshembe Matoseh also calls this place home, and the play is as much about him and his two brothers as it is about the wider conflicts at work. Gary Beadle has a deceptive stillness as oldest brother, Abioseh Matoseh, and Tunji Kasim is by turns mercurial and despondent as Eric, a young mixed-race man who is the living embodiment of the tensions at play in this village. The three all want different things, and are pulled in different directions. There is no right answer. One brother turns to a Christian god, one to terrorism, and one to denial and anguish. None is entirely happy with his decision.
Farber’s production glides through these tensions like a hot knife through butter, forcing us to confront the unpleasant truths at its heart: the white oppressors will never relinquish power voluntarily, leaving the oppressed no choice but to use violence. Soutra Gilmore’s sun-bleached, ruined chapel of a set revolves but leaves the characters nowhere to go – there is a lot of running without getting anywhere. The mission hospital sits at the centre of it all, looking like one of David Best’s temples, surrounded by prowling dangers and dust. Sheila Antim, named only as The Woman, stalks the landscape and literally hangs on Tshembe Matoseh’s back, forcing him to feel the weight of obligation on his shoulders.
The problems hidden by the missionaries’ benevolent assumptions are dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light by Farber’s sharp direction of this complex play. Characters are given nowhere to hide their prejudices, even as they struggle to understand the politics and tensions unfolding around them. Nowhere is this clearer than in the exchanges between Tshembe Matoseh and Charlie Morris, as Morris demands an acceptance that Matoseh is unwilling to give. These scenes are astonishinly well-observed: Morris cajoles Matoseh into conversation, practically begging for his trust, for him to agree that Morris is not ‘one of them’, but to accept him as an ally. Sapani’s Matosheh is understandably skeptical, pointing out that Morris’s native US doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to white people and black people living together in harmony.
Farber’s production stretches across time and countries, placing these characters at the heart of a scorching exploration of how colonialism ultimately destroys everyone it touches. The subtleties in Hansberry’s text are delicately handled, and the lessons of this story are forceful without ever feeling forced.
Les Blancs is on at the National Theatre until 2nd June 2016. Click here for tickets.