Les Blancs (The Whites) a play by Lorraine Hansberry is the story of an African village that is occupied by Europeans in the 1900’s. To show their disapproval a terrorist group arises who starts murdering the Europeans. The play triggers an interesting conversation about race, colour, and colonialism.
Black Bodies on Stage
It seems as if we only ought to see black bodies acceptable on stage if the story is set in an African country. If you are a theatregoer you may have noticed that this is partly true. It is almost as if people of colour do not exist in this country and their stories are irrelevant. As someone who attends a performance course and has worked closely with the drama department of CSM, it has been brought to my attention that the productions lack black actors. The plays produced lack stories that give a place to people of colour and this is also highly reflected in the industry as a whole.
When I have seen so many black bodies on stage in the past it felt revolutionary to me. Seeing them being able to express themselves, simply having a voice and not being just used as tokens to tick a “diversity box” is something theatre producers should be aware of.
A play such as “Les Blancs” tells the story of colonisation in a way that it is not reflected upon in the education children receive. It seems as if talking about 300 years of colonisation of various Countries is a radical subject to bring up. Is this because of the existence of white guilt? Such a big event which has affected many lives and still continues to do so should not be forgotten about so easily. It should not be such a surprising topic to talk about.
This is why it’s so great to see this play at the National for all ages to see and learn from.
The story talks about the differences of skin pigmentation. The character Charlie Morris who is a white journalist from America expresses his confusion about why he is treated as the ‘other’ by the Africans. His view is something very familiar to me as a person of colour. He believes that “race does not matter” which is something you can only believe in when you have the privilege to be the preferred race in your community. For a person who receives violence and injustice just because of the darkness of their skin , race will always matter.
He is reminded of this by the main character of the play Tshembe Matoshe, who after accepting Charlie’s offer for a cigarette reminds him that he ‘Cannot expect three centuries to dissolve in cigarettes’.
Eating the Other
This is a theory put forward by Bell Hooks in her book Race and Representation. She also uses examples from this play in her essay ‘Eating the Other’. Other is referred to as someone who is not part of the majority of the population. For example, it could be referred to as a person of colour. When the journalist in the play takes photographs of the Africans and then uses them to write a sad sub story which may not have been based on any truth. He then publishes this story in a newspaper for his own benefit , he is eating the other. This theory is an appropriation of culture and physical appearance of the ‘Other’ as well.
The police/colonial power in place in the village treated the black bodies with a lot of violence on the stage, which to me was a reference to all the news about police brutality in the west against black bodies. The fact that this hatred and physical abuse has been a part of black people’s life for centuries and is still a part of it today.
The policeman Major Rice very honestly says he believes the lives of his own (white folk) are more sacred than the lives of the black man. In my opinion, this illustrates the face of the colonial racism.
The only women in the play who were not silent were the white women. The elder woman who had been one of the old colonials lived in a house, where she was served by a black family. This created sad imagery of what the effects of colonialism and the creation of the class system may have looked like. In my opinion, she is portrayed almost as a “White feminist”. She claimed that she learned a lot from her black female friend, and in return taught her a lot of things too, such as “Female Hygiene”. This idea of the white saviour who changes the ways of the so-called “Uncivilised” folk, who don’t live by the rules of the west, is something the global south still suffers from.
Unsurprisingly, no black female voice was heard throughout the entire play. This is pretty much the case for most productions that don’t have the stories of black women at the centre. This silence may or may not have been a conscious choice by the playwright. The story is primarily about male history, Venhough written by a black woman. Where is this silence coming from and what does it mean? Is it a silence that is almost a dielectric used among women of colour?