Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
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.
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes