For those growing up in the French Antilles, as I did for a few years, Martinican writer Aimé Césaire was revered as a father figure. Together with his old friend Léopold Sédar Senghor, he remains to this day one of the only prominent black authors in French literature, and yet the centenary of his birth this year has gone strangely unnoticed, as if to confirm that francophone writers who don’t live in mainland France remain second-class literary citizens.
Gratitude, then, to Christian Schiaretti for his timely production of one of Césaire’s four plays, Une saison au Congo. Schiaretti has been at the helm of Villeurbanne’s Théâtre National Populaire (near Lyon) since 2002, and his ambitious, text-focused work often packs a refreshing punch. Une saison finds him at his most convincing.
It tells the story of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader who was a key figure in his country’s bid for independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960. Less than three months after becoming Congo’s first prime minister, however, he fell victim to a coup and was executed the next year by the leaders of the secessionist state of Katanga, with support from the Belgian and US authorities.
Césaire, writing barely five years after the events, is an ardent storyteller. One of the founders of the anti-colonial Négritude movement, he pulls no punches in his account of the international political games surrounding Congo at the time and the UN’s failure to intervene. His Lumumba is no flawless hero either: he is passionate yet uncompromising, and his faith in the power of his own grassroots support accelerates his demise.
The production is a low-key affair: most of the action takes place within a chalk circle reminiscent of Brecht and surrounded by chairs and beer crates, with a platform at the back for musical instruments. Most of the excellent 37-strong cast are black, an unusual sight on the French stage, where black actors are still proportionately under-represented.
African actors, including Burkinabe theatre collective Béneeré, join Schiaretti’s own company for the occasion. Marc Zinga, who was born in Congo and studied in Belgium, leads with stunning force as Lumumba, and the entire cast, including a singer and three musicians, brings Césaire’s words to vivid life with an eloquent (if occasionally exaggerated) range of accents.
Une saison isn’t uniformly strong. Despite the poetic beauty of some lines and the sheer theatrical power of its early scenes, it wavers midway through and only rallies near the end – but it is a statement we shouldn’t forget.