They Drink It In the Congo

The final part of this week's art and trauma-themed Digest: A new play from Adam Brace at London's Almeida Theatre

Adam Brace’s new play They Drink It In the Congo follows Stef, a young white Londoner as she attempts to organize a festival to celebrate Congolese culture and raise awareness of the Congolese Civil Wars, the deadliest conflict since World War II. As the plot develops, she is confronted with rivalry within the charity sector, violent infighting among members of the Congolese diaspora in London, her own guilt as the daughter of a white farmer in Kenya and a post-traumatic stress disorder following her visit to a Congolese village in the immediate aftermath of a horrific attack.

Photograph: Marc Brenner

Photograph: Marc Brenner

Photograph: Marc Brenner

The play contains graphic descriptions of violence in the Congo and depictions of injury – I was shocked on two occasions even though I expected it to be hard-hitting. The facts alone would be enough to cause distress: 500 years of European exploitation of Congolese natural resources, slavery, civil war, mass rape campaigns, and the unchecked mining of coltan1 – the mineral that powers electronic communication devices, a so-called ‘conflict mineral’, which is personified by a sapeur2, or a Congolese dandy who haunts the stage throughout and recites electronic messages received by the other characters. But when the action flashes back to the Congolese village during Stef’s visit, facts fade into context as the horror and Stef’s helplessness are acted out.

The play is a fearsome combination of information and action; it ignited my outrage at the situation, but it also shamed me in my privilege. This compromised position is not lost on Brace: through various characters, especially Stef, he seems to voice his own inner conflict, agonizing over the right he has, a privileged white person, to tell the story of the Congo, and leaving unanswered the question of what good such a play can achieve. As I left the theatre, I was handed a list of books, articles, films and organizations related to the history, crisis and culture of the Democratic Republic of Congo3.

photograph_marc_brenner

Photograph: Marc Brenner

Photograph: Marc Brenner

The Almeida is a small theatre-in-the-round that seats 325 people. The idea that others in the audience shared my sense of discomfort at the inhumanity represented onstage made me wonder how we assume our collective responsibility as so-called global citizens, and where the line is between entertainment and activism. With any luck the play’s run at the Almeida will be extended, or it will transfer to the West End so that it can continue to prompt these difficult questions.

Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer and curator based in London. Her book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration is published by Phaidon.

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