"The horror. The horror.” Those four words are groaned at the climax of Joseph Conrad’s famous novella Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo. No friend of the Belgian administration, Conrad was first denouncing corrupt and corrupting colonial exploiters, but he was also awestruck about what lay beyond their hideous compounds.
That was more than a hundred years ago, 1899, but what we learn from the five Congolese testimonials staged by Ping Chong in Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo at Syracuse Stage, things have not been improving, despite independence and many changes of government. As all five are living people with Syracuse connections, Cry for Peace tries to bring the distant up close. But as with the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, a comparable calamity, the full horror cannot be dramatized.
To begin with, Africa is not as far away as it used to be. While the Sudanese “Lost Boys” have had lots of deserved local press, it turns out that about 300 Congolese have settled here and, despite the fulminations of xenophobes, have entered into life in Central New York, seeking college degrees and contributing to the economy. Catholic Charities and other enlightened bodies get high marks here for their help.
One of the few cheery episodes in Cry for Peace comes toward the end, with photographs of scenes from Syracuse we all know. For a city with a crippling sense of inferiority, it does one’s heart good to be seen as a blessed refuge, an Avalon of snow country.
The local Congolese were not recruited when Chong was here four years ago to stage Tales from the Salt City. That was one of more than 40 productions worldwide, using actual voices to portray the jagged interface between “undesirable elements,” i.e. immigrants, racial minorities, etc., and dominant urban cultures. Stylistically, Cry for Peace looks and sounds very much like Tales from the Salt City, but its historical reach and moral depths are not at all comparable. Millions have been killed in the Congo, or what is called “DRC,” Democratic Republic of Congo, in Cry for Peace. More than 1,500 will die there this very day. Syracuse, even at its worst, offers nothing of that magnitude.
The impulse for Cry for Peace came from 48-year-old Cyprien Mihigo, who took drafts of a play he was writing to Syracuse Stage dramaturg Kyle Bass, a playwright who had worked on Tales from the Salt City. Bass edited and polished the raw material, but also talked to other local Congolese. Mihigo, as the leader of the Syracuse settlement, brought many connections. This led back to Ping Chong, who also invited in his assistant Sara Zatz. We hear from five persons, but writing credits go to three authors, in order: Chong, Bass and Zatz.
The first 15 to 20 minutes of Cry for Peace are given over to a hasty exposition of the history of a territory the size of western Europe or the eastern United States, speaking dozens of disparate languages. Unlike other African colonies, the Congo was once the personal property of a single person, autocratic King Leopold of Belgium, and only later was answerable to that diminutive European nation. Outrageous behavior is highlighted, such as Leopold’s policy of cutting off the hands (a phrase repeated by all speakers) of natives who refused to work on plantations. Chong’s dramaturgy hammers out each date, regardless of its relative significance.
Readers of Adam Hochschield’s popular history King Leopold’s Ghost (1999, Houghton Mifflin) arrive at the theater with an advantage in following this. The four-page timeline in the program does a better job than Cry for Peace in keeping straight unfamiliar names, like Lumumba, Mobutu, Joseph and Laurent-Desire Kabila, and why the country was once called Zaire.
The five speakers, two women and three men, introduce themselves at the beginning, with disarming, self-effacing humor, but we cannot get a handle on their identities until their stories unfold. The two women enjoy a greater facility with spoken English and are easier to understand and to identify. Soft-spoken Beatrice Neema, wearing African dress, might be a Congolese who lives here but she speaks narratives supplied by another woman who did not wish to appear. As her story includes her rape and public humiliation, the tone must be qualitatively different.
Mona de Vestel’s narrative is the easiest to follow and feels like the most extensive. A professional performer with advanced degrees, she has some ties with Syracuse but actually lives in San Francisco, where she teaches creative writing.
The daughter of a white architect and a Burundi mother, de Vestel was born in Belgium and has spent very little time in the Congo. Her stories of racist discrimination and identity anxiety remind one of the writings of Zadie Smith and Barack Obama, but with more bite. Her father, far from the enlightened liberal one might have expected, turned out to be a reactionary brute. Now that the suppressed history of colonial barbarism has come to light, de Vestel says it is like being descended from a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi guard.
As the oldest speaker and the first mover, Cyprien Mihigo takes an overview of the plight of his country, giving special emphasis to the mining of coltan, a mineral few of us have heard of. There is intense demand for it now as it is vital in the manufacture of computers and cell phones, and the Congo is the principal exporter. Mihigo also looks out for the welfare of children and community.
Emmanuel Ndeze wanted to play soccer as a boy but fled, without any property or resources, to Uganda, where he was a refugee for 12 years. Since arriving in Syracuse he has established a family and is taking classes at Onondaga Community College.
The youngest of the quintet, Kambale Syaghuswa was conscripted as a boy soldier in conflicts where it was impossible to tell one side from the other. He escaped to Kenya, where he was a refugee for nine years before coming to Syracuse.
Ping Chong’s one-size-fits-all dramaturgy brings both assets and liabilities to this venture. Best of all, Cry for Peace allows the silent to speak. Editing, rehearsal and rhythmic speaking enhance each message. The interludes of African song and video designer Kate Freer’s excellent and ever-changing projected graphics never take the focus away from the spoken words. But the inclusion of Cry for Peace in Chong’s 40-plus Undesirable Elements series, equating genocide and cannibalism with discrimination, makes this viewer deeply uneasy.
Worse, the portentous, Norman Corwin-ish shouting and repeating of dates, regardless of how significant, tends to flatten the tone of discourse. Then there’s the incessant hand-clapping, coming in varying numbers of beats. It made some sense in Tales from the Salt City, where outsiders spoke of what they had suffered or celebrated breaking through. But clapping when we’re talking of the deaths of millions?
Despite the laudable ambitions of Cry for Peace, Joseph Conrad’s long-ago view of the Congo has not been surpassed or superseded.
This production runs through Sunday, Sept. 23. See Times Table for information.