When I watched the stream of Les Blancs, by Lorraine Hansberry, I thought about all the intersections it throws up. A female African-American playwright, writing about colonialism and racism, through a story set in a British colony in a fictitious South African country, in the 1960's - a pivotal moment in the enduring struggle for racial equality and an end to racism. There is a lot of discourse at this present time, and I wondered what two female playwrights with African, American, and British heritage might be talking about in the context of this play. So, I contacted Jennifer and Lorna and this is what they said.
Ola Animashawun July 2020
Jennifer Farmer is an African-American playwright, dramaturg and educator who has lived and worked in the UK since 1998, and whose work focuses on amplifying under-represented voices.
Lorna French is a playwright, writing workshop leader, dramaturg and an Associate Lecturer on the Writing for Performance MA at the University of Derby.
JF: Does the objectifying of and access to Black bodies in Les Blancs call for a specific duty of care for Black audiences?
LF: I think it does. There are two references to Black characters as ‘it’ in the play: a captured, Black prisoner early on, and then, later on, Peter, as referred to by the colonial rule of law, embodied by Major Rice. For me, these brought to mind the video of George Floyd immediately. The dehumanising effect of that word was striking.
I have to make clear, though, that this is the image of the White officer with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, played by news stations repeatedly, that I am referring to. I have not yet watched the video. I do feel that I should, and will, watch the video at some point but right now I cannot bear to watch anymore videos of Black bodies being brutalised by police because when I do I think about the possibility of that person being a family member and I cannot watch it.
JF: I wonder why you, a Black woman, feel that you have a responsibility to watch these videos and/or images?
LF: For me, I think there is a need to acknowledge that this was an awful and deliberate event. If Black bodies are made to experience this pain and humiliation the very least I can do is bear witness and voice an objection to it.
JF: I didn’t see Les Blancs live at the National Theatre and the biggest reason was that I couldn’t deal with sitting amongst a predominantly white audience to see another play exploring racism and colonisation. From some faux gasps of outrage, to the brutalisation of Black bodies before my eyes, to the demands of white strangers during the interval or post-show to “know my thoughts,” it is exhausting to feel unsafe in what is my creative haven: the theatre. Blackout performances, such as those done for Slave Play, are so appealing for me to give space for Black artists and audiences to engage with the work away from the white gaze.
What’s your response to the argument that the viewing of Black bodies being killed or brutalised will create empathy and compassion, and confirm their humanity?
JF: This argument has been used to justify the constant sharing of videos of the bodies of Black people and people of colour being murdered or brutalised by the police, or being put into cages for being undocumented, or their bodies washing up on a shore after drowning at sea. It tries to push the narrative that if you don’t watch these videos, then you don’t care. I no longer watch those videos or images because I would rather acknowledge our humanity in a different way, as well as protect myself from further trauma.
The brutalisation of the Prisoner at the beginning of the play and the onstage murders of Peter and Abioseh really trouble me because, though we see their trauma, Major Rice refuses to show Reverend Neilsen’s mutilated corpse as a sign of respect. Why does Hansberry make this deliberate choice? What is the impact on the psyches of Black artists and audiences if we reiterate and are complicit in the currency of putting harmed Black bodies on stage? In what racial trauma are we trafficking?
How do you respond to the White, liberal call for the Black characters in Les Blancs to request freedom peacefully, and endure violence and humiliation from the White colonialists without violent retaliation, particularly given the latter's entitled access to Black bodies and spaces?
JF: The play’s dramatisation of the access to Black bodies - Eric being a product of rape, and a victim of sexual exploitation by DeKoven; Charlie taking photos without asking permission; his demanding that Tshembe engage with him (and give for free his emotional and intellectual labour) while there is the presence of violence due to the curfew - hits home extra hard, given the current violence flooding into Black people’s inboxes from “well-meaning” white people who are demanding that we educate them on racism, or are wanting to “pick our brains,” and would have us giving, for free, our emotional and intellectual labour. Either hire and PAY us to do this work, or leave us alone!
LF: This, for me, seems relevant to the recent depiction of Black Lives Matter protests in America and the UK as riots, or public disorder, which appears then to justify calls by some to characterise these protests as solely public disorder. This allows many of those in power to disregard legitimate calls for justice and action against structural racism from protestors in America, the UK and many other countries around the world with admonishments that violence is not the answer.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement is relevant here I think, where he states in Letter from a Birmingham Jail that:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice [...]
JF: And we know how much well-meaning white liberals love to (mis) quote Rev. King! They are far more dangerous than the out-and-out bigot because they work under a veneer that gains them access to our spaces and Blackness. This allows them to continue to fail to hold white supremacy and systemic racism accountable. Charlie is the precursor to today’s well-meaning white liberal and by having Rice as the only “extreme” racist, the other white characters will always be thrown in relief as “not as bad.”
What, if any, similarities do you see between the power relations regarding race within the colonial context depicted in the play, and that of the current American and UK context?
LF: I think there are several similarities, though the contexts differ. What particularly struck me was the naming conventions employed whereby all Black characters are called by names that the White characters consider appropriate. However, all of the White characters are always referred to by the Black characters in very respectful ways that again are considered appropriate by the White characters.
White comfort is centred at all times in the play. While naming conventions are simply one example of the unequal power relations being made visible and White comfort being prized in the play, I think that notion of White comfort being centred is still very much still with us. It remains present during this current Black Lives Matter movement as people around the world try to talk about and take action against structural racism. I think it is important to acknowledge and decentre White comfort as a primary concern if we are all to find ways for those conversations to be had completely honestly, as they need to be if effective action is to be the result.
JF: A straight line can be drawn from Madame’s “decent people” to Trump’s “fine people,” and taps into white women’s investment in white supremacy. Do you think the play feeds into the centring of white comfort? I ask, because I wonder if a predominantly white 2020 National Theatre audience watching this play leaves the theatre questioning their complicity in white supremacy.
The White minority colonialist settlers are depicted as fighting for independence, while the Black majority rule is depicted as terrorism, in Les Blancs. Does this have any relevance, regarding the manner in which struggles for just treatment by Black people is depicted in America and the UK today?
LF: Absolutely, again, for me this goes back to the framing of these struggles for justice and how language is so important in that framing. Some of the discourse around groups such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, to name a couple, speaks to Hansberry’s notion in the play that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Having grown up myself with a father who had campaigned in England to free Nelson Mandela in the 60’s and 70’s and also had been involved in the liberation struggle for an independent Zimbabwe, the specific wording used to articulate that fight of the Black people in Les Blancs by all its characters definitely has resonance for today’s different struggles for justice and fair and equal treatment around the world. For example, while Margaret Thatcher’s government referred to the African National Congress as “a typical terrorist organisation”, by 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron was referring to Nelson Mandela as, “a true global hero”.
Tshembe says to Abioseh regarding Eric: “Shall we all forgive that which has not yet been acknowledged. Too many have had to forgive too much here. A fire has been lit in Africa.”
How willing do you think European nations and the USA are to truly acknowledge their full role in, and the true effects of, slavery, Jim Crow laws etc. and colonialism when it comes to the structurally racist systems operating in those countries today?
LF: I think it will be difficult. However, as can be seen by the reactions to the removal of statues of slave owners and colonialists in the U.K. recently, there is movement in the direction of acknowledgement by some. This can only be a good sign because you have to identify and face a problem before you can take action to rectify it.
Les Blancs makes the audience view the uncomfortable and contradictory truths about colonialism in Africa. Colonialism was not really that long ago; my father, who is still living, lived under colonial rule for half of his life, in then Rhodesia. From a young age he would mention to myself and my siblings links between the American Civil Rights struggle to that of the Zimbabweans who fought for independence.
JF: As the call for abolishing the police gets louder in the US, there comes alongside it performative gestures, which are harmful and distracting. Police officers kneeling, supposedly in solidarity, or politicians wearing Kente cloth come to mind. These gestures purposefully attempt to derail the activism because too many have their very existences invested in maintaining structurally racist systems.
Let's talk about the absence of the Black female voice.
JF: Lorraine… I am really floored by the lack of fully-fledged Black female characters in this play! What’s going on?! The character, Woman, is only to serve Tshembe’s narrative and existence. It once again relegates the full and complex experiences of Black women to the margins, which is the complete opposite of what she’s done in A Raisin in the Sun. Maybe that’s why it hit me so hard.
LF: I was struck by this too. The contrast to the specificity brought to the women of A Raisin in the Sun was troubling to me. I wondered at the exclusion of the Black female experience in Les Blancs. I also wondered how this absence was discussed during the creation of the most recent text of the play for the 2016 production.
JF: We do know that the play was incomplete when she passed away in 1965, so perhaps further development would have brought this into consideration.
Jennifer Farmer is an African-American playwright, dramaturg and educator who has lived and worked in the UK since 1998, and whose work focuses on amplifying under-represented voices. Her current projects include the play How Far Apart which explores the impact racial bias has on Black women's experience of childbirth, as well as a new opera which experiments with the musical genres of grime, drill and drum ‘n’ bass to examine what it is to be a young person in today’s Britain, with the continued growth of neo-fascism and social media’s role in the widespread justification of racism and xenophobia. Currently an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths College and Central School of Speech and Drama, Jennifer has lectured at Kingston University, the University of Greenwich and London South Bank University, and she has facilitated workshops for many of the UK’s theatre and arts organisations such as the National Theatre, Soho Theatre, Birmingham Rep, Royal Court, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Lorna French is a playwright, writing workshop leader, dramaturg and an Associate Lecturer on the Writing for Performance MA at the University of Derby. She is currently under commission to Pentabus Theatre Company. Other recent work includes a short film called Red, White and Blue (2020), the play Brum: Herstories (2019), inspired by oral history interviews with Black Afro-Caribbean women in Birmingham and the West Midlands, and a co-written Afternoon Drama, Last Flag (2018), for BBC Radio 4 and the co-written adaptation of Jane Eyre (2018) for Bolton Octagon. Lorna is also a two-time winner of the Alfred Fagon Award (in 2006 and 2016) and has presented work at Birmingham Rep, Oval House, MAC, Young Vic and New Wolsey Theatre.
Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry marked the debut theatre debut of director Yaël Farber. The text was adapted by Robert Nemiroff and the restored text directed by Joi Gresham. The play was recorded for the National Theatre Archive in 2016. It was presented on the National Theatre's YouTube channel 2-9 July 2020. The recording is available for educational establishments to watch via the National Theatre Collection.