I have been fascinated by the history of the end of Empire and have read widely around this subject and sought out films that tread the same ground but I haven’t seen many plays where the conflict between colonial powers and the rise of national identity are explored.
I was delighted therefore to see this play by Lorraine Hansberry performed at the National Theatre in London. Hansberry, most famous for ‘A Raisin the Sun’ has created a play which poses questions about the motivation of its range of characters. In some way, the old colonial officer with a clear view of his own superiority over the natives, is the easiest one to understand. More complex are the white immigrants who come to Africa to civilise, preach or just help. Then again, in a clever use of perspective, we have the African returning from abroad, and an abroad where he has made his home, married and raised a child. It is Tschembe who provides one pair of eyes through which we see how the country has changed as nationalist movements find their feet and the colonial power reacts with harsh measures. He is home to attend his father’s funeral but is confronted by issues of identity and loyalty.
Also arriving at this pivotal moment is an American journalist whose liberal views make him a natural ally of the Africans; he is surprised that Tschembe does not welcome this attachment. The play is the better for not naming this country that is home to Tschembe as well as the group of missionaries and doctors who seek to help.
Most sympathy goes to the old woman, now nearly blind, who has spent a lifetime in Africa. Her genuine love for the people and place does not protect her or excuse her role as part of the colonial oppression.
‘Les Blancs’ is a thought provoking exploration of the effects of colonialism and the extent to which force is needed if freedom is ever to be gained. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?