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Lorraine Hansberry, 'Les Blancs'

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, summer 2001; available in print as Les Blancs; the collected last plays. Vintage, 1994

This powerful play received its first British production at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester last year. It tells, through the experiences of a small group of characters, of the pivotal events in the liberation struggle of an unnamed African state.

The beginnings of armed struggle are met by the British authorities not with dialogue but violent oppression, including the arrest of moderate leaders. These tensions are played out through the characters of Tshembe Matoseh, an African returning home from his Western education, and a liberal white journalist, struggling hamfistedly to prove the depth of his understanding of the “black man”, in so doing completely missing the point. Presiding over them is the less politically correct but more genuinely integrated figure of a white missionary woman who ends by recognising and encouraging the violent uprising which she knows will bring her own death.

The author, Lorraine Hansberry, died in 1965 at the age of 34. During her short life she was a vibrant part of the black liberation struggle in the USA, as well as supporting such causes in Africa and promoting knowledge of their African roots amongst black Americans.

Her best-known play, A Raisin in the Sun, deals with racism in the US and was the first play by a black woman to make Broadway. Her subsequent works were deemed more controversial, and Les Blancs was not performed until five years after her death. Nevertheless, if the Royal Exchange production is anything to go by, this is a passionate, hard-hitting play whose slight tendency to stereotype characters does not detract from its power - both to shatter white liberal complacency and to emphasise the continuing relevance of debates on race and colonialism.

Topics: Culture