By Colin Kinniburgh
It’s been a good season for political theater in New York. From the Foundry Theater’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s Good Person of Szechwan to the panoply of events surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of Bread and Puppet, a string of performances have warmed new audiences to the possibility that leftist art isn’t always plodding and didactic. As the year comes to a close, we can add one more powerful off-(off-) Broadway production to this list: Aimé Césaire’s A Season in the Congo, directed by Rico Speight, which played to a sold-out La Mama Theater in late December.
A Season in the Congo, which chronicles the rise and untimely fall of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, is the third of four plays written by Césaire (1913–2008), the anticolonial visionary and figurehead of négritude. Hailing from the French Caribbean island of Martinique, Césaire was an internationalist whose literary project was guided by his close relationship with Léopold Sédar Senghor—a fellow poet and politician who became the first president of independent Senegal in 1960—and other leaders of decolonization. He had never travelled to the Congo when he wrote A Season in 1966, but recognized, in the story of its independence leader Patrice Lumumba, a wider crisis that he invested with the full force of Greek tragedy. Lumumba’s trajectory lends itself well to the form: assassinated by his fellow countrymen after a Belgian- and U.S.-backed coup, only months after becoming his country’s first democratically elected leader, he has become iconic of the crushed promise of a truly emancipatory decolonization.
Speight cuts Césaire’s scenes with archival footage—which bring the play new texture and valuable context—and with festive Congolese music that underscores the short-lived euphoria of decolonization.
In its timing, La Mama’s production bridges Césaire’s centennial and the anniversary of Lumumba’s assassination, which took place on the night of January 17, 1961. Incidentally, last week’s performance also coincided with the State Department’s release, after a twenty-year-long declassification review, of a trove of documents detailing U.S. involvement in the Congo from 1960–68. The newly released documents, according to the State Department’s own press release, chronicle “the pervasive influence of covert U.S. Government policies in the newly independent nation designed to install a pro-Western regime and limit Soviet influence.” First and perhaps foremost, they relate CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba with poison, which came very close to fruition in the late summer of 1960—a CIA scientist was sent to Leopoldville with presidential approval and the appropriate “biological materials”—only to be pre-empted by Mobutu’s coup on September 14. Four months later, Lumumba was executed by Congolese rivals with Belgian officers on hand. (The United States celebrated with shipments of military aid to the new regime.)
When Aimé Césaire wrote A Season on the Congo in 1966, Lumumba’s death was still fresh in popular memory and Joseph-Desiré Mobutu was just consolidating his dictatorial grip over the Congo. Almost fifty years later, the play’s depiction of this cataclysmic moment of decolonization, tinged alternately with hope and deep cynicism, feels as relevant as ever: the Congo’s ongoing abuse by foreign powers, its fraught relationship with the United Nations, its descent into sectarian violence are all sketched in Césaire’s rendering of its independence struggle. To the uncanny insight of Césaire’s text, director Rico Speight adds an impressive cast as well as an original combination of film, music, and dance.
The play begins in the streets of Léopoldville, capital of the Belgian Congo, where an itinerant beer vendor dispenses sardonic wisdom along with his bottles of Polar. “My advice to you is drink,” he says. “Drink and drink some more. Come to think of it, do they leave us free to do anything else?” The vendor is none other than Patrice Lumumba (played brilliantly by Ezra Mabengeza), and his subversive chitchat soon lands him in prison, though not for long. Suddenly, his country is free and Lumumba is propelled into the role of prime minister. Here as elsewhere in the play, Speight cuts Césaire’s scenes with archival footage, which bring the play new texture and a valuable historical lens. Festive Congolese music, meanwhile, underscores the short-lived euphoria of decolonization.
During the independence ceremony (June 30, 1960), Lumumba meets the Belgian authorities’ condescending rhetoric and disingenuous preparations for the transfer of power with a fiery speech calling for Uhuru (freedom). But the speech earns him the ire of his fellow leaders, among them Mobutu (whom Césaire dubs Mokutu), then his comrade in the Mouvement National Congolais, and the Congo’s pliant new president, Joseph Kasa-Vubu (Kala-Lubu in the play). (Throughout A Season in the Congo, Césaire takes his liberties with the historical record, modifying names, rewriting speeches, and inventing scenes at whim while staying true to the general course of events.)
Soon, Lumumba finds himself up against a violent secessionist movement in the mineral-rich Katanga province, and barely two weeks after independence, the crisis shakes the new leader’s grip on his country. With Belgian support—down to weapons and personnel—the secession spreads; the U.N. troops sent in to end the hostilities all but protect the rebels, and Lumumba turns to the Soviets for help. Mobutu, now leading the Congolese army, increasingly distances himself from Lumumba, as does the president; the tensions play out in Lumumba’s home, too, where after sparring with his wife, he learns by radio that he has been dismissed as prime minister.
Ultimately, it is the “neutrals” as much as the obvious bad guys who prove the undoing of Lumumba and his ideals.
The play moves quickly through the months leading from Mobutu’s coup (September 14, 1960) to Lumumba’s death, and the whirlwind sequence of events is broken only by an (imagined) exchange between the banished leader and U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Played convincingly by Jed Aicher, Hammarskjöld’s character brings out the subtleties in Césaire’s historical polemic, which pits Lumumba not only against the Belgians and their proxies in the newly independent Congo but also against a postwar international community that couches its interventions in the language of human rights and judicial impartiality. “I am a neutral,” goes Hammarskjöld’s refrain. But when Mobutu uses the same language to justify his seizure of power, he lays bare the complicity underlying these hollow words. “It’s my duty to neutralize you,” the new commander tells his former friend and colleague, who at this point is languishing under U.N.-supervised house arrest. (Here Césaire’s language borrows very closely from Mobutu’s actual speeches.)
Ultimately, it is the “neutrals” as much as the obvious bad guys who prove the undoing of Lumumba and his ideals. Lumumba himself defies being read as a saint, or an innocent victim: in his relationship with his wife, in his refusal to participate in a coalition government after the coup or even to accept the protection of sympathetic local leaders, he appears stubborn and rash. Meanwhile, his fierce determination to crush the Katangan secessionists clashes with his allusion to Gandhian principles in the moments before his assassination. He is conflicted, even arrogant at times. But above all, Lumumba is trapped: the easygoing beer vendor launched to the forefront of the independence struggle by his vision of a free Africa is just as soon catapulted to rock bottom by a postcolonial order engineered to fail.
Regrettably, if Speight’s production falls short at any point, it is in its depiction of the assassination itself, which plays out (like several other scenes in the play) as a film sequence rather than on stage. Placed between a dance interlude—another interpretative addition on Speight’s behalf, which splendidly captures the solemnity and foreboding of the moment—and the final scene of the play, the black-and-white footage struggles to hold the climactic tension that has carried to the play to its inevitable conclusion.
The full scale of this historic drama is retrieved in the final scene, however, as Mobutu leads the Democratic Republic of Congo’s independence day celebrations five years later and turns the meaning of “political theater” on its head. The new dictator, wearing his trademark leopard-skin outfit, plays part of the national liberator and invokes the legacy of the independence leader whose murder he all but carried out. “Patrice, martyr, athlete, hero—I turn to you for strength to carry on my task. . . .” With his cult of personality, his anticolonial bombast, and above all his rhetorical embrace of Lumumba, Mobutu indeed belongs on a stage rather than at the head of one of independent Africa’s largest states. The tragedy of Lumumba’s death is still palpable when it is resurrected as farce. If only Césaire’s version had been further from the truth.
Colin Kinniburgh is a freelance writer and researcher based in New York City. You can find him on Twitter @colinreads.