It’s rare that I see a history play and immediately want to run out and read more about the subject at hand. The birth of a free nation in Africa: who would have thought it could be such compelling theater? This play, written shortly after the events in it took place and by an African (Aimé Césaire) is electric and unapologetic. It takes facts and people and builds personality and immense drama; all centering around the central, charismatic figure of Patrice Lumumba, the father of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Things may have gone south afterwards but, well, when he speaks of his dreams for his country – all of the tribes united, everyone under one banner – I couldn’t help but hear Henry V speaking before the battle of Agincourt, or Martin Luther King giving the “I Had a Dream” speech – a truly great leader with an endless well of optimism and a dedication to building the best future for his countryman. You could hardly have asked for a dreamier casting than Chiwetel Ejiofor, because he carried across that passion and dedication without a trace of egotism or self-consciousness. He spoke, and I believed; knowing, with my awareness of modern history (and gaps in my knowledge of the 50s or 60s, when this play is set), that somewhere along the line things did not go to plan.
This could-have-been-dry story is enlived by music and dance (not at the expense of story, but illustrating it); puppetry (actually, this was a weak point); a set with no moving pieces that still effortlessly changes from living room to prison to bar (the front rows are at tables as if they are out for cocktails) to market square; and twelve or so actors who somehow fill the space as if they were forty. It’s all sparse, actually, not heavy handed in its creation of a time and a place, giving us room to use our imagination to create airplanes and battlefields, dance halls and torture rooms. I was amazed at how quickly time had passed between the start and the end of the first act, and was ready to get back and see the rest of the story – I could not have asked for a more compelling drama. It was like the energy of Fela! combined with the passion of Malcolm X (per Spike Lee) – the whole theater was crackling.
In fact, it was so compelling that I wanted to research it more to figure out to what extent it was pure hagiography and to what extent true; Aimé Césaire must have omitted a few dark decisions to make Patrice Lumumba appear so … well, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as presented to my eyes as an American child came to mind. But … that’s something I’ll look into on my own time, rather than dumping it in my review. I went to see this as a work of theater, and it was every inch a success. Don’t miss it.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013. It continues at the Young Vic through August 24th.)