Uhuru Lumumba! A Season in the Congo review

Catherine Hoskyns reviews A Season in the Congo at London's Young Vic

July 23, 2013
4 min read

It is a surprise when at the end of this production only ten – or is it twelve? – actors line up for the curtain call. For they have created such a lively and dense scenario that one would have thought many more were involved. But each of the actors, all of them black, plays several parts, sometimes donning masks or, if playing white characters, putting on a white nose shield, which has the effect both of downplaying the power of whiteness and making it slightly comic.

But there is nothing comic about the white power displayed in this production. For this is the story of the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo (now DRC) who was kidnapped and assassinated in 1961, with the complicity if not worse of the major Western powers and the United Nations. The Congo is rich in minerals; most of them located in Katanga (now Shaba), its southernmost province, which the former colonial power Belgium hoped to keep under their control even when the country was declared independent. Lumumba’s ‘fault’ was that he claimed these resources for the people of the Congo and tried to mobilise the Congolese to demand a real independence (uhuru) rather than a compromised sovereignty (dipenda). He couldn’t be bought off so he had to be killed.

Aimé Césaire, the Martinique poet who wrote the original play in 1966, is said to have been haunted by the Lumumba story and what it meant for Africa. Joe Wright, who directs this production, follows the essence of Césaire’s text but amends it freely to make the plot clearer or achieve dramatic effect. This is helped by the clever set, designed as the forecourt of an anonymous but rather grand building which can in turn become a bar, a government office or an assembly room. Above are balconies for more intimate encounters or when height and distance are required. From here, for example, puppets representing a slew of bankers comment and scheme.

Atmosphere

The story is shot through with music, dance and song and an authentic Congolese atmosphere is created in the various bars and venues on the main set. Here Lumumba casually invests his friend Mobutu as commander in chief of the army. This is the Mobutu who first deposed Lumumba and then ended up as a dictator, despoiling the country of its riches and impoverishing its people for thirty years. Western nations did nothing to check the abuse.

Most striking, however, of the set pieces is the final scene when, in a setting reminiscent of the Christian ritual of the last supper, those complicit in the murder sit at the back of a trestle table along which a tortured Lumumba is rolled by his jailors. Ordered to beg for his life, he refuses, saying ‘I die my life and that’s enough for me.’ (Recent research suggests that Lumumba was killed not by Africans but by Belgian soldiers in a secret location. However, Wright follows the Césaire original in having Lumumba bayonetted by Godefroid Munongo, the Katangan minister of the interior.)

This is ensemble acting at its best and it is invidious to mention names. However, the Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Lumumba, who is on stage for most of the two hours and 50 minutes the play runs, creates a compelling central character around which all the rest revolves.

The audience at the preview session I attended was young and diverse, testifying to the on-going resonance of the Lumumba story. Africa’s continuing lack of control over its own resources, and the ruthless removal or corruption of anyone who opposes this or suggests a different way, is a story as relevant today as it was in the sixties.

Until 24 August at Young Vic, box office 020 7922 2922.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


37