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Two plays

The Spokesman has received recommendations for two plays running in London this summer:

A couple of experiences friends may be interested in.

Rarely, we go to London for the theatre. This weekend we did.

Theatres beset with financial pressures are pushed into re-interpretations of classical productions, or depend on star billings to draw an audience. And so as not to offend wealthy patrons, they stay clear of politically contentious themes. There are exceptions – Maxine Peake’s enactment of Shelley’s Peterloo protest poem “The Masque of Anarchy” – but they remain exceptions.

However, we saw a couple of plays, which I at least (Joe) must confess, I went to out of interest in the issues aired, rather than in expectation of a dramatic feast. We got both.

On Friday night we saw Aime Cesare’s “A Season in the Congo”, about the travails of the Congo. It provides in dramatic form, a history lesson in de-colonialism/re-colonialism. When Patrice Lumumba was elected Prime Minister there in 1960 (the year of Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech), he won Congo’s freedom from 80 years of Belgian colonialism. This alarmed the CIA and Western interests generally – so while the nascent democracy of Congo was being re-invaded by Belgium to detach the mineral-rich Katanga province, the UN tied Lumumba’s hands by a phoney neutrality to prevent aid reaching the Congo government forces.

Lumumba refused to submit to this Western dictat, fought back, and was condemned for the resultant bloodshed. Captured, he was abducted and delivered to the secessionists, who tortured him and his comrades to death.

This destruction of the infant democracy plunged Congo into 50 years of genocidal warfare – but it also established security for the Imperialists who have been able to maintain to this day, their extraction of rubber, copper, uranium, coltan (for mobile phones) and diamonds – unimaginable riches from a country with the highest level of malnutrition in the world.

Lumumba’s ability, his courage and his principle is a beacon for us all. His experience is a timely reminder that other giants like Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela are the exceptions in avoiding assassination. Hundreds like Salvador Allende and Patrice Lumumba have been murdered to frustrate the progress they were leading their peoples towards.

On a personal note, (again Joe) as a twenty year old, guyed up with the optimism of the Aldermaston marches, the evidence of a continent in struggle for freedom, from Algeria, to South Africa, I recall, my dismay at Lumumba’s death – of defeat driven into “our” victory.

A didactic performance? Quite the reverse – a brilliant play by Cesare, himself a participant in Martinique’s struggle for independence, and a brilliant all black cast who melded music, puppetry, dance, satire and tragedy - at the Young Vic in London.

The following day we saw a matinee performance of August Wilson’s “Fences” at the Duchess Theatre, also in London. Lenny Henry excelled in the lead – chosen not just because of his star quality but following his stride into straight theatre following his acclaimed Othello.

Again, an all black cast, and in a play by a black US writer. This time dealing with the struggle of a Pittsburg family as they try to break out of poverty, to pass on the experiences of one generation to the next, while confronting racism, family conflicts of loyalty, and personal responsibility. A play about one of those whom Martin Luther King was later to lead into trade unionism – a garbage worker, someone whose work is vital to society, but who as an individual would not be recognised by any of the privileged. An astonishing performance by all the actors, down to the 13 year old playing the product of an extra-marital liaison – combining subtlety, humour, love, pain and a touching honesty.

August Wilson drew on his own experiences of life in a poor black city area, and wrote a cycle of 10 plays about urban black experience in the USA down the decades. “Fences” is one of these.

If like us, you have the good fortune to have friends or family in London, one or both of these plays would reward the effort. And don’t take our word for it, both plays, and the main actors have enjoyed critical acclaim – which is how we learned of them.

Joe and Shirley Clark

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