A Season in the Congo

2013-6-14

Aimé Césaire's play A Season in the Congo tells the story of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, from his days as an itinerant beer salesman to his eventual assassination. As with most of the Young Vic's productions, the staging and the performances are all top notch. However, there is a real weakness in the treatment of Congolese history.

To begin with, all of the Europeans are caricatures. You can tell because they are either played by puppets or - in a bizarre jab at physical appearances - by black actors with prosthetic noses. The problem is that, constrained by history, it is the caricatures of evil that are ultimately victorious and their story that becomes the more intriguing one. Events in Léopoldville seem inconsequential next to the machinations of the Belgians, the Americans and the Soviets.

This problem is compounded by the treatment of the Congolese. Lumumba isn't sufficiently developed as a man or as a leader, and the play seems to think his biggest achievement was his refusal to be a useful idiot for the Belgians. The Congolese themselves are robbed of agency and largely de-fanged. For example, internecine warfare is all sanitized and reduced to dance numbers (it being a requirement that any play about Africans include a lot of dancing). And while they dance they are defeated by actual Muppets. The only African character that actually takes control of history is Joseph Mobutu. In the end, A Season in the Congo doesn't require us to take either Lumumba or the Congo seriously, which seems the least any country's history deserves.

A Season in the Congo is at the Young Vic until the 17th of August, 2013.


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