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)

(The Root) — This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Martinican polymath Aimé Césaire. If anyone truly deserves the title of Caribbean Renaissance man, it’s Césaire. Poet, playwright, co-founder of the influential literary movement négritude, politician and mayor of Fort de France, Martinique, for nearly 56 years, Césaire was a prodigious talent whose peerless intellect and indefatigable industry made him a quasi-divinity in his native land.

For more than half a century, Césaire bestrode the Francophone literary world like a colossus, an intellectual behemoth and proud defender of the African roots of Caribbean culture at a time when black self-hate was routinely engendered by colonial education.

That such an important figure of literature and politics in the 20th century can be so little known in the Anglophone world is both a tragedy to letters and also to humanity, and something that the scintillating new production of A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic Theatre in London — for the first time ever in the U.K. and in English — will hopefully go a long way to rectifying.

With the famous poem “Notebook of a Return to My Native Land” (1939) and plays — The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963), about the plight of post-independence Haiti, and A Tempest (1969), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest transposed to a colonial Caribbean setting — Césaire cemented his reputation as an iconoclastic intellectual. With fellow Martinican writer Frantz Fanon he was at the vanguard of the black intellectual struggle for racial equality and liberation from the oppressive colonial yoke.

A Season in the Congo (1966), the second play in Césaire’s trilogy of “decolonization dramas” is about the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the African nationalist leader and first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo who was assassinated in 1961, allegedly by the CIA.

With its title an allusion to Rimbaud’s famous prose poem “A Season in Hell” (1873), the play examines Lumumba’s efforts to free the Congo from the vicious Belgian rule and the political struggles that led to his murder. The play also proffers a critical assessment of the perils of neo-colonial leadership in the wake of Lumumba’s death.

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor — who is becoming more widely known in Hollywood and is set to star in upcoming Oscar bait 12 Years a Slave — is coruscating and effortlessly charismatic as Lumumba; the palpable chemistry between him and Daniel Kaluuya as his evil sidekick (and ultimately his betrayer) Joseph Mobutu is thrilling to watch.

Directed with great cinematic flair and panache by Joe Wright, A Season in the Congo is a masterful production, even if at times Césaire’s characters verge on being mere ciphers for the political ideas he is bringing to life.