Danny Sapani: ‘We must teach the truth about British history’

Black Lives Matter

Les Blancs was staged at the National Theatre in 2016 and is Lorraine Hansberry’s final play. It’s not as well known as her iconic A Raisin in the Sun. When did you first read it?
When I was called by the National Theatre. I did my research afterwards and realised there had been two [UK] productions of the play, one at Theatre Royal in the 1980s and the other at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. It was first performed on Broadway in 1970, after Lorraine Hansberry had died. Robert Nemiroff [her former husband] controlled the output of her estate until it was handed over to her daughter. What’s interesting is that he collated the many notes and revisions she was writing for the play on her deathbed – she died in 1965 at the age of 34 from pancreatic cancer – and put them together for the 1970 production.

When I read that version of the play, Africa seemed like a Disney version of Africa. The play is brilliant in itself but you don’t want minor issues around taste to ruin the final effect. [The director] Yaël Farber shifted things around a bit to create this production [together with restored text directed by Joi Gresham]. Coming from South Africa, and being an African person, she was very aware of race and racism in our world. She is an activist and she was absolutely the right person to carry the mantle of Lorraine Hansberry’s work.

It is a historical play about colonial oppression and the struggle for African independence but is it also a political play for now?
Yes it is. I think most of our history needs to be revised, and that’s just what Lorraine Hansberry did in this play. There are so many aspects of history she talks about in Les Blancs that have still not been acknowledged, that are not common knowledge and that have not been apologised for. As a result, aspects of colonial things in everyday life remain. Even the fact that we are talking about “black lives matter” is a hangover from imperialist thinking when black lives didn’t matter.

We need to educate our children about British history; it can’t just be about the Fire of London, the Tudors and the great things Britain has done. Let’s talk about the things that have not been great, too. This history explains why we have a multicultural Britain now; it is a result of what happened in the past.

Do you think audiences will receive it differently, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement?
I think it makes it even more painful to watch in the light of the killing of George Floyd. I don’t think racism just happens in countries like America or South Africa. It happens all over the world because the empire was so broad and wide. If you think about how Britain [or Europe] was involved in the mess that is the Middle East, how India was one of the richest countries in the world before colonialism and one of the poorest after it, about the murder of Patrice Lumumba [Belgium formally apologised for having a part in his assassination in 2002] – there seems to be no accountability for the things that have happened in the past or have continued. If there is no accountability, there is no chance for change.

I feel there has to be an absolute drive to educate ourselves and each other about the truth of our history and the stories that did not seem relevant to a world where George Floyd could be killed in cold blood, but are relevant in the new world we will build together.


Sheila Atim, left, in Les Blancs at the National Theatre in 2016.

Sheila Atim, left, in Les Blancs at the National Theatre in 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Have you been to any of the Black Lives Matter protests?
I have been around the local protest with my children, wearing masks and social distancing. We made our stand and I wanted to educate my children about what is essential in their lives and their friends’ lives. It’s not just black people fighting racism now but white people as well. It’s about being anti-racist and following it up with action.

The African country under imperial rule is not named. Do you have a theory on why Hansberry didn’t name it?
This production brought in different influences but kept it deliberately unspecific: some of the names are Ghanaian and East African, the cloth used for the funeral [of Tshembe’s father] is Ghanaian, but some of the customs are west African. There are reasons for this: the story does not apply to one African country but is ubiquitous to western imperialism, and racism, across Africa. The Mission [of the church] in the play is like a petri dish – an experimental space – to explore all the themes of revolution, its lead-up, its cost.


Anna Madeley, Sian Phillips and Danny Sapani in Les Blancs.

Anna Madeley, Sian Phillips and Danny Sapani in Les Blancs. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Your character, Tshembe, is a reluctant revolutionary who is forced to consider the effectiveness of passive resistance versus violent revolution, isn’t he?
Yes, the situation reaches a point when words are not enough and violence becomes inevitable to overcome the circumstances. If you continue to oppress people, eventually they will rise up. [The play suggests] this will happen again and again unless we are able to reach across the divide and see each other and, essentially, love each other.

The notion of home is complicated too; Africans are oppressed in their homeland and Tshembe has made his home in Europe, but he becomes uncertain when he returns.
His loyalties are completely split; but there is no room for that duality in revolution. He is forced to choose a side – that’s the cost and pain of revolution.

You have worked extensively across TV (including Killing Eve), film (including Black Panther and The Last Jedi) and theatre. Which one are you missing the most?
TV is something I enjoy as a viewer and as a creative but what I miss the most at the moment is being able to sit in a room with a bunch of people and see a play or listen to a lecture or a piece of music. That community and live experience can’t be replicated in any other way. There’s a real need to put pressure on the government but also find local ways to support theatre that has been so horribly affected by lockdown.

The Guardian

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