Les Blancs is bold, complex and delves into the issue of racism and colonialisation.
Les Blancs is a powerful and captivating piece of theatre written by Lorraine Hansberry, a playwright and writer, she is also the first African American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Her most notable piece of work is A Raisin in the Sun, however, Les Blancs is the most important play she has written, and Yaël Farber’s production is beautifully done with the use of stage and music to bring further attention to a wonderful play. Les Blancs is set in a fictional African country, Ztembe, that is on the rise of a civil independence movement to break away its chains from its European colonisers. It depicts the nature of colonialism and puts African voices to the centre of the story by using both music and dance to signify African cultures. It is a truly bold and complex piece which resonates with society to this day thanks to strong connotations to the importance of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Black Arts Movement.
A central theme of the play is institutional racism. We encounter this very early on in the play as Mayor George Rice appears and drags a young African man by a noose and refers to them as “it”. This one scene is crucial and has strong links to today’s climate with police officers killing black people, for example, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, for simply existing. The use of the word “it” dehumanises the African man and puts into context the heavy themes presented throughout. Off-stage the Mayor shoots the young man, we are unsure of the reason for the killing of the man, but the art of not knowing is what creates even more suspense and tension. The Mayor seems to be a symbol for European colonialism as throughout, his expressions and racist remarks put the white race at a higher foundation than the black race. He says, “sacredness of a white life”, this echoes both Britain and America when looking at the treatment of black individuals in both countries. It also recalls British history even looking at as early as the 1960s when ‘no blacks, no Europeans, no dogs’ signs were legal.
We are also greeted with the effects of the white saviour complex and its damaging effects. Tshembe Matoseh, a former villager, refuses to be friends with a white American journalist, Charlie Morris, who arrives in the country on a mission. Charlie is desperate to help Tshembe and the Africans, however, Tshembe will not forgive Charlie as he represents America, the same country that has exercised abuse over the people of Tshembe’s homeland. America has colonised the country in hopes to “save” it, but what they are really doing is exerting their power, ideologies and culture to the people of this country and forcibly removing all sense of their identity. This is most prevalent through the Catholic missionaries who attempt to convert the natives as they believe it is what is best for them. The Catholics and the Americans are not listening to the natives and are instead perpetrating what they believe is the greater good. This theme resonates with today’s world with Black Lives Matter movement demanding equality whilst the entertainment industry specifically uses this platform to discuss cartoon characters and who they are voiced by.
Hansberry began writing the play in 1962, this is a key date in understanding the context of the play. In this same period in America, there was a growth of the Black Power Movement which advocated for the equality of black Americans. One of the central components to this story revolves around African independence from its white colonisers, which is also what the Black Power Movement was attempting to do – free themselves from their oppressors. It also delves into means of protesting from non-violent to violent and how sometimes a violent protest is needed to finally be heard, echoing this quote from Malcolm X – “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence”. This quote perfectly captures a conversation between Charlie and Tshembe, as Charlie asks Tshembe to speak to the West on behalf of Africa. Tshembe explains that for centuries Africans have tried to talk to the colonisers and their governments but are never listened to. The only way to be heard now is to physically fight back, especially when respect hasn’t been gained through peaceful means.
Les Blancs is a beautiful thought-provoking masterpiece which highlights the ignorance of culture regarding systematic racism. Though set in a fictional African country, the play is far from fiction and instead reveals the true story of black people across the globe and the nature of colonialism on their identity and cultures. The play reveals that the history of black nations has been written by white people and instead this play lays bare the real realities of the disturbing nature of colonialism. Which is often neglected when learning about subjects such as the British Empire.
Les Blancs is free to watch till 9 July through the National Theatre’s At Home Series.