Caribbean Literary Giant Gets His Due

A new production of A Season in the Congo helps bring a wider audience to the works of Aimé Césaire.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Patrice Lumumba and Joan Iyiola as his wife in A Season in the Congo (Johan Persson)

With an inventive and darkly comic use of puppetry, toy soldiers with parachutes thrown from the ceiling (to symbolize Belgian paratroopers), contemporary African dancing and highly stylized, choreographed violence, this is a captivating production of an important play that fully deserves the critical acclaim it has garnered.

At its heart, A Season in the Congo is a Conradian assessment of the nature of Western imperialism and an excoriating critique of the “civilizing mission” of the Belgians, but also of the Machiavellian duplicity and ruthless cloak-and-dagger diplomacy by which Western foreign policy operates around the world.

The play is also a lyrical yet cautionary tale about courage, betrayal, self-sacrifice, human dignity and the abuse of power, and one that issues a strident and impassioned challenge to Western political hegemony.

With the world geopolitical situation currently in such a febrile state — with British and American troops in Afghanistan, American intervention in Syria looking likely, Bradley Manning on trial for divulging U.S. military secrets and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden having been granted temporary asylum in Moscow — a play questioning the role of the West to police the world (under the guise of guarding against Communism, or now, Islamic fundamentalism) has never been more timely or more relevant.

Césaire’s play, like all great dramas, enlightens and challenges in equal measure. It is the work of a fiercely proud black French-West Indian who cares deeply about the plight of the oppressed and who seeks to highlight the rapacious exploitation of African wealth and resources in a powerfully dramatic creation.

Césaire’s profound humanity, his moral grandeur and his acuity of vision are all amply demonstrated in this skilfully crafted and elegiac play. Césaire died in 2008 at the age of 95. On the evidence of what is now unfolding around us on the world stage, the 21st century could certainly benefit from more writers, intellectuals and politicians with the integrity, the nobility and the hatred of evil that characterized the man from Martinique.

Editor’s note: A Season in the Congo, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is playing at the Young Vic Theatre in London until Aug. 24. For more information, click here.

Lindsay Johns is a London-based writer and broadcaster. He currently blogs on current affairs and culture for the Daily Mail online.