A Summer Surprise in Theatrical London

This summer has seen two major productions in the mainstream London theatre of plays with all black casts, both revivals, Amen Corner by James Baldwin (1924-1987) at the National and A Season at the Congo by Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913-2008) at the Young Vic. Both were sell outs and all performances saw a good half of the mainly white, middle class and small “l” liberal audiences giving standing ovations for the virtuoso performances. They may also have been giving standing ovations for the “production values” (sets, costumes, lighting, singing, dancing and music); what is more difficult to discern is whether many in the wildly clapping, hooting and foot-stomping audience were excited by the messages.

Not that there was much of a message to Baldwin’s Amen Corner. Basically, in the play, set in early 1950’s Harlem, Baldwin posits two possible lifestyle choices for young blacks. David (the now just grown up son of the heroine), can opt for duty and religion like his preacher-mother, or for good times and decadence like his jazz-playing father. Politics just do not appear in the discussion. Baldwin himself, brought up in a religious home, chose good times over duty and as he was gay, he moved to Paris where being black and gay was easier. Later on in the early 1960’s Baldwin associated himself with the civil rights movement in America, but he was not really an activist and certainly not an initiator, he was a supporter or fellow traveller. However as Baldwin was a famous writer of the time, his name gave him immediate prominence and access to the important figures. Baldwin wrote fluently about them (including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; but interesting as the texts are, they are essentially personal commentaries which depoliticise the political; rather than examining major events, Baldwin mostly examines what he “felt about them“.

Gay, black, anti-religion, pro-rights but otherwise non-political, hedonistic with a lot of celebrity name dropping, Baldwin’s work is generally perfect for the post modern liberal mind set and unarguably well written, it’s no surprise that the National should revive Baldwin’s all black, all singing, all dancing Amen Corner. It’s done brilliantly and is hugely enjoyable, but deeply unsatisfying.

The Young Vic’s choice of A Season in the Congo however is really interesting as it is so very surprising. The writer, Césaire was a communist until 1956 (and a confused, but well intentioned socialist thereafter), and in stark contrast to Amen Corner’s celebration of “doing your own thing“, A Season in the Congo written in 1966, but not previously performed in Britain, is a paean to Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961).

The spectacular horrors of the Belgian occupation of Congo are passed over perhaps a little too quickly; but the politics of how immediately after independence in June 1960 the imperialist powers use the rhetoric of self determination to foment and arm an “independence” movement in Katanga, the richest in natural resources of all Congo’s provinces, as a way of circumventing and impoverishing the newly “independent” Congo. As Lumumba refuses to contemplate a Congo without Katanga, imperialism quickly works for his overthrow (achieved in September 1960) and actual murder in January 1961 (just six months after independence). Lumumba is replaced by Mobuto (who, having shown he was totally amenable to western interests, is allowed to keep Katanga within Congo). The UN wrings its hands but is shown to be acting at all times in the interests of imperialism and, while there is some attempt at “balance” with a quick appearance of the Soviet Union looking ferocious, the USA is cast in the role of imperialist in chief. This may all seem par for the course to Lalkar readers, but it is unusual fare for a mainstream London theatre

Although the play’s political narrative is very clear, it is interesting that the theatre reviews in the mainstream papers muddle it, leaving out all mention of imperialism, the faux Katanga independence movement and the UN’s role and instead, quite blatantly, they all misreport the play’s politics and present Lumumba’s destruction to be the result of tribalism which was open to bribes by “bankers”.

The clear lackeyism of the reviewers (who most probably did not openly collude with each other in distorting the play’s politics, but were just instinctively loyal to their beloved bourgeois class in misreporting the play’s political message) really highlights the oddity of this anti-imperialist play being presented in a mainstream London theatre. Granted the Young Vic is not the commercial West End, but it receives Arts Council funding and, like all Arts Council funded operations, the Young Vic is supposed to be innovative and “challenging” in form, but not in actual content.

The Young Vic’s next production is a revival of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, which is much more to the Arts Council taste. Controversial at the time, The Doll’s House is continually revived as it has the individualist “me, first, last and always” message which capitalism markets as progressive and continually seeks to promote. (Some communists have even succumbed to thinking Ibsen was progressive as Eleanor Marx was a fan of the Norwegian playwright, but while she was a great admirer, despite a great deal of cajoling she was never able to drag Engels to a production).

It is unlikely that A Season in the Congo heralds a new departure and that anti-imperialist plays are going to start popping up here, there and everywhere; most probably the production was just a one off aberration that somehow managed to slip under the Arts Council radar. Just as interesting a question, however, as how an anti imperialist play got to be produced in a mainstream London theatres was the reaction of the audiences.

Amen Corner starred the Oscar nominated Marianne Jean-Baptiste and got terrific applause, but far more of the audience stood up to cheer and shout, foot stomp and clap at the end of A Season in the Congo than at Amen Corner. Granted Chiwetal Ejiofor, the actor playing Lumumba carried a long and complex part as powerful and moving as any Hamlet, and granted the music, singing and dancing of the Congo could have got the ancient dead to rise from their graves and fall in love again, but it would have been impossible to clap the play quite so exuberantly without sympathising with its accusations against the UN and its totally anti-imperialist message.

And in the deeply reactionary capital of this vicious imperialistic power, just that in itself was cheering.