On Thursday night I went to see a performance of They Drink It in the Congo at the Almeida Theatre. It was a striking show about a British woman who tries to redeem her guilt from a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This play focuses on the struggles for modern Congolese people, or people of any diaspora, really. There were brutal flashbacks to a village in the Congo where a young woman was a victim of genital mutilation. The main character, Stefanie Cartwright, is traumatized from a visit to the D.R.C and is followed by her guilt of not being a hero during her stay. This man (or her imaginary manifestation of him) follows her throughout the show as a current reminder of her past. In order to “redeem” herself, she attempts to put together a Congolese festival called “Congo Voice,” which is supposed to raise awareness and celebrate Congolese culture. After several unfortunate instances with renegades, they bring down the festival. I highly recommend this play to everyone and anyone. Luckily I remembered to bring my journal to the performance so I could write down how I was feeling during intermission. Here are some quotes from my quick jottings:
This (social justice theatre) is probably the best and worst thing about theatre-
BEST: making people aware of lesser known terrors and injustices in the world.
WORST: WE, the audience, learn of these injustices and feel like good little boys and girls for doing our civic duty to go to this show and then grabbing a laugh after the show. How, as an audience member (or any member of the production) DO we move proactively? How can we choose what global terror to tend to? Can WE actually help by buying those bracelets or scarves sold at stores? Whatever “solution” there may be, how can we actually work toward it?
Although yes, this is exposing the horrific realities of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is reminding me of the total apathy that most of us have. Almost everyone in the theatre (during intermission) is talking, drinking, and laughing with each other and it is vulgar. It is disgusting to see myself and those around me leave this theatre barely remembering the first act because we’ve already pushed it out to make room for more useless information about pop culture. I learned from a friend that the run of this show won’t last much longer, which made me incredibly sad. No one wants to be “burdened” by sad theatre. People would much rather see shows like “The Play That Goes Wrong,” no offense. Yes, there are several facets for theatre, but we can’t ignore that theatre for social change is important and necessary. I, by no means, am the first to say this in any regard. If you would like more exposure to theatre for social change I encourage looking up my former professor Kindra Steenerson’s company, SAGE Acts. Here is a blurb from their page on Facebook: “In our work we pay particular attention to networks of oppression surrounding, but not limited to, issues of race, sexism, sexual orientation and gender identity that continue to permeate our society.”
I think I’d like to return to the social apathy towards theatre for social change. There were so many good points brought up by this play. I saw this apathy within the characters and the audience. There were characters on the festival committee who were very ambivalent and haughty, in usual British style. I think my problem with this apathy is my fear of being ambivalent myself. I’m worried that I, myself, am becoming one of those haughty ambivalent theatre-goers. In classic style, I am making this experience more about me than the problems posed by this play.
This will probably be my most rambling blog post, because I am having so much trouble composing real thoughts about this.
They had screens throughout the theatre that translated the whole show into Lingala, the native language of the D.R.C. It took me many scenes to figure it out, but there were scenes where Congolese characters were talking to each other in “Lingala” even though they were still speaking English. For a few small scenes they were speaking exclusively in Lingala and it was translated onto the screens. One of the most beautiful scenes in the show was when Anne-Marie’s daughter (1st generation English) began to speak Lingala with her mother. It was a beautifully spiritual moment between the mother and daughter. They had finally connected and grown closer because of their native roots rather than bonding through forced foreign culture. A very cool technical moment was the “mining” of the floor, pulling it up tile by tile revealing a dirty and dusty hole in the ground. This section of the floor was the set for the scenes in the D.R.C.
The man playing Stefanie’s “guilt” was covered in metallic slivers used in cellphones, which are mined in the D.R.C. He was an ever-present figure that interacted in scenes but never with other characters. This man from the Congo, who is Stefanie’s manifestation of her guilt was the father of the sexually assaulted young woman. It was led to believe that the father was forced to be the first to rape her in a line of men. He was left with a gruesome head wound that circled the top half of his head. During the flashback as Stefanie is stumbling back to the camp in fear, she cannot bring herself to look at this man or his wound. Because of this she feels weighted down by her “sins.” Not exactly sin, but she was more weighted down by what she did not do.