When we join the characters, a white American journalist named Charlie Morris has just arrived in Africa (I don’t think they specify where) to do a profile on Madame and Reverend Neilson, a white European couple who set up the mission here many, many years ago. A mixed race boy named Eric is treated like a member of the Neilson family, so we assume the Reverend was his father. Psst: he’s not! The mission operates as a very outmoded medical clinic, with basic medical tools and no refrigeration. Two doctors, Marta Gotterling and Willy DeKoven, have also lived on the compound for many years. The worst Blanc is Major Rice, an English army officer stationed in the community who is mean, racist, and just really sucks. He seems to be leading the Unwanted Blanc Charge and so he orders everyone around a lot, as officers do.
Madame Neilson, a very old lady who has gone blind, is pretty awesome. She’s really tough and brave but has seen some shit and has empathy, so she is probably the most sympathetic character on stage. Vanessa Redgrave would play her in a movie. She tells of her deceased best friend, an African woman whom she bonded with years ago, who we learn was Eric’s mother, who died giving birth to him. So at least Madame can make the much beloved excuse to racism of ‘but I have black friends’. An African man named Tshembe Matoseh returns from his adult life in Europe to the village for his father’s funeral, where he encounters his brother Abioseh – now a Christian priest, enraging Tshembe – and his half-brother Eric! They’re brothers! But things get pretty unbrotherly real quick when they learn that their father was part of the terrorist rebellion, led now by Peter – the main servant in the Neilson household. Dum dum dummmm!
Yankee Doodle Charlie comes just in time to witness this terrorist uprising, of Africans sick of the colonial presence and ready to ‘fight’ against their oppressors. “Fight” in quotes because it’s not really fighting if you kill white children in their sleep. Dr. Marta seems great and nice but then it turns out she is pretty racist. She takes everything the Major says as law, and doesn’t doubt for a second that all the villagers could easily be terrorists and that a harsh response is necessary. Charlie tries repeatedly to have a real conversation about the issues with Tshembe, but Tshembe rightfully, if a little too angrily, says he doesn’t owe him a conversation just to assuage his white guilt &c. I’m not saying that the oppressed doesn’t have the right to be angry; I’m saying the actor’s anger level started high and had nowhere to build to, so in the character Tshembe’s very many ‘angry monologue’ moments, they all had the same level of anger. The very first and the very last were given at the same fever pitch, which is not so good. He was a great actor, but like, we need some journeying. On the seeeea.
As for Charlie. I’ve become much more forgiving of bad American accents lately, realizing that as long as the acting is getting the job done, it’s okay if the English-born person doesn’t say his r’s like an American would. Sadly, the actor playing Charlie (I don’t feel the need to look up names if I am criticizing) seemed too focused on saying his r’s to focus on the acting he needed to do. It’s like he read all my past reviews complaining about English people’s American accent and my repeated yelling of “Just say your r’s! That’s the most important part!” and listened too intently like I’m actually someone worth listening to about your acting. Ugh and Charlie is such a big, important role, so a lot of energy was expelled on his accent focus that should have been directed towards, ya know, saying important lines. Oh wells. At least he said his r’s, even though he sounded like a cartoon cat.
At least Charlie sort of seemed like a decent Blanc, trying to figure out what he could do to help this shitty situation, whereas Marta and the Major and the Reverend (in illuminating discussions about him; we never meet him because he was delayed on a business trip but then at the end we learn he was killed in a nearby village’s terrorist uprising) turned out to be not so open to helping the native culture blossom but more into controlling it and claiming to be just as much native to the village as the African people were, just as entitled to rule it. The blancs thus embodied the not-so-funny version of “The Book of Mormon” song “I am Africa”, when the white missionaries in that show sing: “I am Africa, I am the heartbeat of Africa…We are Africa, We are the deepest darkest Africa (So deep and dark!) ..We are the sunrise on the savannah, a monkey with a banana, a tribal woman who doesn’t wear a bra. Africans are African, but we are Africa!” No joke, exact parallel between these two groups of Blancs.
The show felt properly grand and impressive, not just because of the length (I mean it could have been 2 hours and 35 minutes, 40 even, instead of 2.50, come on now) but because, with few exceptions, it was treated so respectfully, with vital silent moments paced perfectly. For example, the recurring “Woman”, all impossibly long, gangly limbs, walking along the perimeter of the stage like a spirit (and she was!). At first I was like ‘who dat ninja’ but then it really worked to effect the right mood. She was captivating, and not just because her arms were as long as her legs and her legs were longer than I previously thought possible. Moments like this, and pacing that I’m sure is really difficult to nail, were directed so well that I didn’t even care how badly I had to pee. I tend not to really comment on direction but you could tell this was a triumph of that skill.
Another thing that they production tried using to effect the right mood but that miserably failed and might get me to sue (not really but I wish) (maybe if it were America)? The entire Olivier Theatre at London’s National, an enormous, cavernous space, was entirely clouded with the smoke from burning wood. When you entered, it hit you like a ton of bricks. A few old ladies behind me commented, oh wow it’s like we are at a bonfire! But when the incredibly strong stench only gets stronger as characters burn more wood on stage, it gets hard to breathe. People were coughing a lot, and I had to breathe through a paper towel for three hours. It was like sitting in a tiny 4x4 room that was 70% fireplace, burning at full capacity, where you had to share oxygen with 10 other people, except this was 100 times that. And breathing in the fumes of a fireplace is carcinogenic, so I’m pretty pissed. The actors having to deal with this 8 times a week better be getting trauma pay. I mean, three hours a day, some days 6 hours? That has to be like smoking several packs of cigarettes. Sue, actors! Sue!
Overall, the play was very well done but unbelievably difficult to swallow, which I’m sure is the point. But I found the message of “Les Blancs” to be much harder to grasp than that of “Raisin” and “Clybourne Park”, the spin-off of “Raisin” written by Bruce Norris. Maybe it’s a more sophisticated, abstract lesson in this play, which Hansberry considered her most important work and maybe intended to be as difficult to grapple with as the issues are in reality. Maybe it’s because of the smell. But I was left not knowing what to think except that racism/oppression/colonization really f-ing suck. This could very well have been her intended result, but damn it sucks to just feel powerless and overwhelmed with how shitty people can be on all sides. It raised tons of important issues about racism and cultural sovereignty, without answers because there really aren’t any. The problems in this play and in our world don’t really have solutions, obviously, but somehow “Clybourne Park” got through to me much more successfully; I really felt that I understood what it was trying to say about humanity and about various racial issues. “Clybourne Park” was also written by a white man, which might explain why I (a white person) connected with that play more, as maybe a white person’s perspective on these issues made it unknowingly easier for me to connect with. Though I would hate if that were the reason, we probably do comprehend subject matter more when put forth by people with similar experiences. Regardless of the author’s intended takeaway, “Les Blancs” is a very powerful play and the current production is well worth seeing, even though you will feel like absolute bullhonkey afterwards.
I had low expectations for all the old biddies that normally fill matinee audiences, but I didn't see one phone after each act began (well, with a minute or two grace period so people could shut their phones back off even though it should take 3 seconds). However, one super loud, super embarrassing ringtone went off in the orchestra/stalls during a very heavy scene, which was ridiculous. Like, even if you aren't at the theatre, who keeps their ringer that loud? Crazy people. Some folks next to me liked to talk too much but other than that it was a fine audience.
"Les Blancs" is playing at London's National Theatre until June 2. It is about 3 hours with interval, which is what English people call intermission.
Bring a surgical mask to breathe through.