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A Season in the Congo: Remembering Lumumba (and Cesaire)

By Anita Franklin

The geo-political condition is febrile, with ordinary people around the world demanding independence from empires, colonizers, home-grown dictators and vulture capitalists. On the other side of the power divide, vested interests hang tight with their puppets, controlling oil, minerals—the world’s natural assets. The UN watches as the US and Russia bark slogans at each other, sell arms to all sides, and then come to their own accommodations. Does this sound familiar?

It seems eerily like the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those times were often dispiriting. My own childhood was marked by the long procession of assassinations—symbols of de-railed social experiments. First there was President Kennedy, then King, another Kennedy, interspersed with the murders of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X.

And yet before all that, during the latter years of the 50’s there was collective joy when African nations began to achieve political sovereignty. In my family there were plenty of celebratory house-parties. We were inspired when Black people in Ghana (1957), Guinea (1958), Cameroon (1960), and the Republic of Congo (1960) began winning the right to rule their own lands.

African American responsiveness to Africa—and the Congo in particular—has a long history (in spite of perils of sojourning while Black in the 19th and early 20th century). Evangelist George Sheppard (once known as the Black Livingstone) and the historian George Washington Williams (author of the original chronicle of African American History) were among the first human rights watchers in Africa. They documented and exposed the atrocities taking place in the Congo under the rule of Belgium’s King Leopold II. The genocidal acts, the piles of chopped off hands, the collateral damage that decimated the population—what Williams called “crimes against humanity”—came to an end only when Leopold was forced to give up his personal control over the territory, ceding it to the Belgian state.

While the vilest practices were checked under the new regime, systems of forced labour continued and newer structures of privilege and exploitation were put in place. There were, for example, divisive educational policies which encouraged schooling only among certain classes of Africans and other colonial interventions which fostered tribal tensions, fragmenting the population further. But nationalism grew in spite of the obstacles. Belgium finally lost its fight to keep control over the Congo. When elections took place in 1960, an educated beer salesman named Patrice Lumumba became the country’s first democratically elected leader.

Within the space of mere months, came treachery, secession, overt and covert military interventions by the UN, USSR and the US culminating in the assassination of Lumumba. Killed by the CIA, so they say, and with the help of British special services, so they say, Lumumba spent 20 weeks in power before being overthrown by Mobuto and the usual international suspects concerned about the spread of so-called communism. While the circumstances of Lumumba’s death remained obscure, the reasons for his death were all-clear, even in the 60s. The control over the wealth of the Congo—its diamonds, its uranium (once used in the Manhattan project) and even the coltan which is a crucial element in mobile phones and computers, was at the heart of the conflict then as now.

In the aftermath of the assassination, Martinican poet and playwright Aime Cesaire crafted a trilogy of plays about the promise and pitfalls inherent in the process of de-colonisation. A Season in the Congo is the second of the trilogy. It’s a play that’s won rave reviews in Britain where it performed to sold-out audiences all summer. The play has raised awareness about the waves of suffering that have spread across Central Africa in the wake of Lumumba’s murder and betrayal. Untold millions have been killed, displaced and disenfranchised by political and economic piracy (and tribal war). As the play’s Director Joe Wright has noted, the problem with the Congo is not its poverty but its wealth.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lumumba, A Season in the Congo is a mesmerizing, haunting, informed drama. Taking us from the struggle to win independence through the dissension of the Katanga secession on to Mobuto’s ascension, the play is a master-class in political theatre. It is epic, global in scope and uncannily prescient. It is not just Ejiofor’s magnificently in-the-moment performance as the brilliant and naïve Patrice Lumumba which makes this work seem undeniably of our time; it is the entire production that's arresting. A Season in the Congo demands to be seen, proving the play deserves to be re-discovered, over and again. Season’s soundtrack, especially created for this production is so much more than backdrop. An awesome mix of live and recorded music conveys the history and immense variety of Congolese culture. It drives a narrative that is as much about the current state of affairs as it is about the past.

In addition to Ejiofor’s greatness in the lead role, special mention must go to the griot in the white robe, played by Kabongo Tshisensa who acts as chorus and common-sensical seer. He’s at once custodian of the Congolese people’s history and exemplar of their daily wisdom. Daniel Kaluuya is also compelling as he morphs from Lumumba’s friend to deadly foe and puppet of larger powers.

Wright’s style of direction is modern and African. His production shifts across time and space, employing an outstanding ensemble cast who act, dance, sing, play musical instruments and serve as puppeteers. Quite simply they raise the dead and challenge you to remember feelingly the callous destruction of Lumumba and his dream of a united, free and prosperous Congo. A dream like so many others from my childhood, still deferred.

The album Kinshasa One Two, created in association with the play and Oxfam projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is available at http://drcmusic.org

From October, 2013

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